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Suburban Japanese in Matthews: One-U 

Weddington Road in Matthews has gone from cow fields to soccer fields in a decade. Where once a singular shopping strip graced that stretch of road, outcroppings of businesses abound. Before banks slashed payrolls and expense accounts imploded, the rolling hills of suburban Matthews had as much green as the Siskey's playing fields.

In the original retail center on Weddington Road is the 43-seat One-U: Japanese Kitchen & Sushi Bar, which opened this past March. A Japanese restaurant had been in that spot but failed. Local restaurateur Tom Chin, who owns the China Buffet, saw potential in the space and asked his relatives -- the husband and wife team of Tony Tan and Michelle Leong -- to become co-owners and operate the space.

With the new economic reality, however, these owners opted to give the interior a cursory makeover. Using gallons of paint to warm the dining room with orange tones, they avoided the city's former penchant for showpiece dining. To compensate, though, the owners' new-economy stratagem packs the menu with dozens of choices. While other local eateries have trimmed their menus, One-U hopes to cast a wider net.

Itamae Tam spent a decade working in the Manhattan sushi emporiums. Leong describes their menu as "traditional Japanese with fusion and other Asian foods." Albeit unfocused, the menu reveals some treasures such as the Malaysian dishes. In fact, many of One-U's dishes reveal a modern rendering of the life journeys of both Leong and Tan, who hail from Malaysia. You won't find laksa (curry soup), but you will find chicken satay as a daily special.

Perusing the menu may take a while since it encompasses 30 appetizers, 50 rolls, five rice dishes, noodle soups, teriyaki, tempura, chicken katsu (Japanese fried chicken), and hibachi. And then there are the combo plates. Leong says the combo plates make this place New York style. "Bento is traditional; combo is New York," she notes. Combos are inclusive of soup, salad, dumpling and California roll.

Some of the dishes on this lengthy list succeed better than others. If you sit at the sushi bar, you can watch Tan craft his rolls and learn a trick or two about his ingredients. Not so long ago, dinner at a sushi bar was about the only place one could sit at the bar and watch a chef. Nowadays, fashion-conscious restaurateurs have become bar-eccentric while putting their kitchens on display -- behind glass. Here, though, Tam is assessable.

Tam's kitchen is not afraid of flavor or heat. The first round of food to arrive includes a delightful, but piquant, tangle of squid in a cold salad, and a predictable trio of shumai. Although the wasabi shumai packed heat, their sidekicks should have stayed in the heat a bit longer. The food parade continues with rounds of artfully layered rolls, some speckled with roe, others lubed up with the shiny glaze of a barbecue sauce. The favorite was the tide of richness in the crispy soft shell crab roll. On the other hand, the spicy tuna was a deviled mush. For the nigiri, pristine cuts of red clam and fin fish perched on mounds of rice. At times, Tan's interpretation of rolls has a tropical bent. One roll contains eel, cucumber and mango, while another has salmon and mango.

While prices at Japanese restaurants typically mount up, One-U keeps their prices in check. Special roll prices are $9 to $13 for the lobster king roll while regular rolls are only $2.50 for a cucumber roll. Rice dishes, which include chicken curry and pineapple fried rice, range from $11 to $14 inclusive of soup or salad, and the high-end for teriyaki is $13.50. The beverage list offers beer, wine and saki.

Tan told me he wishes people would stay longer to enjoy their food, yet ironically, a server briskly took away every semi-emptied plate, effectively rushing us. And it's not as if there's a wait here.

In the grand tradition of a neighborhood joint, however, the brawnier dishes shine -- tempura is crisp, dumplings have good consistency. And in the grander tradition of Asian restaurants is the pssst menu. In addition to the Daily Special menu, which is posted on a board near the entrance, a "Hidden Secret" menu has specials only offered to those who inquire.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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