I like raw food. When I was young growing up in Massachusetts, my parents took me to an oyster bar somewhere in Boston. I was probably about 7 years old. The time had come for my first New England culinary rite of passage: eating a raw oyster. I still remember looking at the slimey, gooey thing in the half-shell that had been put in front of me, trying to decide if I was going to be “brave” and eat it. I remember the fellas behind the oyster bar taking bets on whether I would do it. Only one of the guys thought I would. And I did. He won the bet and I discovered a whole new world of culinary delight. It was a pretty good day for both of us, I think. Later that year, my parents would unveil the world of sushi to me and for the following decade, my family and I would go for a big sushi dinner every year on my birthday, right up until I left for college anyway. It’s been more than a decade since then now, and a big sushi dinner on my birthday is still kind of a thing.
Following a bold 12-hour adventure to attend an album release show in Boston the night before my birthday this year, I returned to my Durham home at 9AM on the day of my birthday and slept for several hours. My daytime power nap left me feeling awfully hungry, as the last thing I had eaten was a sad breakfast sandwich from Dunkin at Logan Airport sometime around 4AM. I changed into my esteemed birthday attire and headed to Raleigh to one of my favorite restaurants in the Triangle: Ajisai.
Located in Cameron Village, Ajisai is an “Japanese Fusion” restaurant with a tremendous sushi bar. A consistently high-quality and often decadent dining experience, I began my wholly exquisite birthday meal with two of their infamous oyster shots. The $8 savory shot features a raw kumamoto oyster, a splash of house sake, a splash of ponzu sauce, a sprinkling of ikura (salmon roe), a sliver of uni (sea urchin), a dash of tobiko (flying fish roe), all topped with a raw quail egg and a bit of chopped scallion. The flavor combination is–as you might imagine–outrageous. Briney, certainly, with a touch of sweetness, and the subtle suggestion of sake, this shot is a layered and robust way to stimulate your taste buds at the start of a meal.
After the oyster shots, I mulled over the sake selection before finally settling on the 300ml bottle of Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, a cold, unfiltered sake, easy to drink, and definitely not overly sweet (I don’t like sweet drinks), and priced at $15 for the bottle. One of the most bang-for-buck options on the sake menu, this bottle has never disappointed me since I was first introduced to it last year by a certain local fashion artist many of you know and adore.
While enjoying the first few sips of the Nigori, I spent some time examining the specials board. Ajisai specializes in sashimi and their specials board often features very unique dishes, like their Aji (Japanese Horse Mackerel) Special. This dish makes use of the whole fish. The chef will sashimi the entire fish, then batter and fry the entire skeleton into an edible garnish. If like me you tend to be a bit daring in your culinary pursuits, then I highly recommend giving this dish a whirl. The Aji has been so popular in fact, that it is now a fixture on their regular menu.
For my next course, I elected to partake in their live scallop special. Like the Aji, this dish uses the whole fish, from the familiar meaty center to the fleshy outer scraps. The chef slices the scallop while it’s still attached to its shell, then in one smooth cutting gesture, removes it, and serves it as several pieces, each one separated by a sliver of lime. The outer scraps of the scallop are chopped and added a ponzu sauce sprinkled with tobiko and served on the side along with a little pile of fresh wasabi. In raw form, scallops have an even more buttery taste. Combined with the hint of lime and the ponzu-tobiko sauce, each bite is a balanced blend of savory and citrus. Easily one of my favorite dishes, the live scallop alone is reason enough to visit Ajisai for any sashimi lover.
Continuing on my daring trend, I ordered a piece of the California Uni (sea urchin) from the specials board. Uni is not exactly the prettiest looking fish. Mustard-colored and a little odorous, uni can sometimes be off-putting to a more reserved sushi patron. But if you can overcome its ugly duckling appearance, then you will discover the true taste and texture of lusciousness in the world of seafood. A soft texture, so much so that it quite literally melts on your tongue, uni is a smooth, savory-intense burst of flavor. Finding myself in a state of immediate withdrawal after eating the last bite, I ordered another one and eagerly partook as soon as the sparkly blue-lighted dish it was served on was placed in front of me.
The time had now come for the culminating moment of my oh-so-delightful birthday meal. I ordered a small selection of sashimi (baby yellowtail and mackerel), a single serving of ikura (salmon roe), and another oyster shot… because, you know, birthday. In a slightly unusual step for me, I also ordered one of their specialty rolls, the Tomo. In all these years of dining on raw things, I don’t often spring for the rolls, as I trend heavily toward the simplicity of just the fish. But, I had been drinking sake all evening and knew I would need something carby to carry me through the rest of the night. With great effort and determined to eat everything I had paid for, I finished everything I had ordered, even the sake.
Knowing that it was my birthday, the head chef shared a few shots of sake with me, seemingly delaying my departure on purpose. Then I realized why. From the kitchen emerged the woman who had taken care of me all night as I blissfully consumed my solo birthday dinner at the sushi bar. She was carrying a plate and I discerned a candle. Tempura-fried birthday cheesecake. They even sang to me, “Happy birthday sweetie!” After making a wish and blowing out the candle, I attempted to eat what was the first birthday cake I’d had since being a teenager. Stuffed to the gills already with what had been a perfectly timed, totally delicious, and (considering it was a birthday splurge dinner) very reasonably priced meal, I made my best effort to consume as much of the cake as possible. Afterwards, I gleefully moseyed back to my car and headed back to Durham for a late night end-of-birthday hang with a good friend and creative partner of mine. It was a quiet end to a whirlwind 36-hour birthday adventure, from the 12-hour trip to Boston, to the glamorous and delectable birthday dinner.
Even if you’re not celebrating anything, the experience of dining at Ajisai is well worth it. Whether you choose to partake in their amazing $12 lunch special (3 rolls for $12 + soup and salad), or if you decide to do the dinner thing, this restaurant will not disappoint.