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February 21, 2013

Pisces gets creative with sushi

When your server gets excited about the toro, it’s a good day.

“It’s just beautiful, really great marbling,” raved ours at Pisces Sushi Bar & Lounge, and indeed, the slice of bluefin tuna belly turned out to be lovely: a rich soft pink, thinly striped with silver. Buttery and rich – offered as sashimi (alone) or nigiri sushi (on a pad of rice) – good toro is a prize. In Charlotte’s Land of 10,000 Rolls, where the lists of maki sushi tend to be newfangled and everything-but-the-kitchen-sinkish, you don’t find good toro everywhere.

Pisces sells more contemporary rolls than sashimi or nigiri, says co-owner and Hong Kong native Jason Cheung, but he also says his mission – after “make the customer happy” – is “get them to try something new.”

So he tries to sit down with customers, find out what they’ve tried, what they’ve liked, and make a few suggestions, if they’re interested. The staff is clearly encouraged to interact a lot as well; we noticed lots of conversations, guidance and recommendations.

The nearly 3-year-old Pisces is at the Metropolitan in midtown, across from Trader Joe’s. It tends to draw a youngish crowd, and not just because of the next-door lounge that Cheung and partner Bryan Li opened in June. That side also serves the whole menu, but has a notable cocktail lineup and more of a nightclub feel: lower lighting, lower tables, louder vibe.

A round aquarium set into the wall between the neighboring spaces displays a handful of undulating, small jellyfish. Sometimes a soft light illuminates them; sometimes it’s set to a more garish spectrum that shifts every few seconds.

The restaurant side features a double-height wall patterned with smooth stones; elsewhere are graphic designs in brick red, black, cream and pale aqua, and a little hall of secluded booths. Concrete floors and wood tables total up to a lot of hard surfaces, but the place is spaced well enough that it doesn’t get truly noisy until it’s busy.

So you can hear your server walk you through a page of starters and one of specialty appetizers. Of special interest: agedashi tofu (deep fried, tender triangles with dashi broth) and a beautiful, delicate black cod grilled with miso marinade. If you get sushi, one of these can serve as entrée.

Two pages list sushi, old-school on the front (from salmon to uni – sea urchin – to salmon hand rolls), specialty rolls on the back. All of what we had was well-executed, a clear step up from my initial visit soon after the place opened.

The itamae (sushi chefs) include a former upscale Japanese hotel chef, Cheung says, and one with more than 40 years experience. I’m guessing neither made the most popular Pisces roll before coming here: It’s the Screaming O roll, pairing a pulverized version of spicy tuna with tempura shrimp inside the roll, seared tuna and jalapeno outside, then adding eel sauce, spicy aioli and “invisible wasabi” (a clear sauce) for added pop.

The only dishes labeled entrees on this menu are eight hibachi variations, from tofu ($12) to a wagyu ribeye for $65. Cheung says he wants to offer the wagyu, often called American-style Kobe, to those willing to try the pricy beef – fair enough, though the menu shouldn’t call it simply Kobe. He keeps about three orders in stock.

For the fainter of heart or wallet, there’s tuna bruschetta – raw tuna with avocado, mango and citrus soy on sliced baguette. “It’s easy to get people to try it without them thinking: ‘That’s raw fish!’” Cheung says. He’s even more delighted to talk about the differences between bigeye and bluefin tuna with aficionados.

“We want customers to explore by themselves,” he continues. Pisces is a solid place to do so.

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