On a cobblestone side street next to The Durham Hotel, you'll find Mike Lee's pair of Bon Appétit-celebrated restaurants. Tucked away in a basement location, M Sushi serves high quality sushi and an authentic tasting menu. M Kokko, a tiny Korean-inspired restaurant, is best known for its crispy fried chicken sandwich, but it also offers ramen, rice bowls, and wings. Learn more about the chef behind this dynamic restaurant duo.
If someone could only order one thing from your menu, what should it be and why?
The ramen from Kokko and simple nigiri sushi from M Sushi. The ramen is something I have [spent] lots of hours testing and researching by taking trips to Japan and all over the United States, and [now] I am very happy with our version of it. Traditional nigiri sushi is where you can most tell the difference in quality of the ingredients and the rice, which is foundation of all sushi.
What do you love about Durham?
Durham is a very eclectic city with lots of foodies and wonderful restaurants. [Downtown Durham] has a very nice group of restaurants that are owned and operated by local talent. Many of the building owners and investors are very conscious as well... they understand the unique and valuable connection the local businesses have with the community. It's definitely a heavy concentration of talented and special chefs. I am very honored and thankful to be around them.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef or open your own establishment? What was your inspiration? Did you have an 'aha' moment?
I started working professionally in the kitchen in 1995, not counting flipping burgers at Sonic in high school. I knew from the beginning that my goal was to open a restaurant. I wanted to learn and work at many different places so I started to move around a lot and relocated often to experience how different sizes and types of restaurants operated. I would often work at two to three different places a year for about seven years straight. When I came to Raleigh about a decade ago, I was just passing through since my parents were living in the Triangle and I hadn't seen them for a while. I decided to stay for a few months and work some places locally, but along the way, I got the opportunity to open Sono Sushi in downtown Raleigh.
After few years, I wanted to open a sushi bar that focuses more on seafood and the fundamentals of sushi by having a limited menu concentrated on tastings and a multi-course menu. We knew we had to start from scratch instead of trying to reinvent Sono. So after much thought, we decided to sell Sono and search for a place in Durham and ultimately opened M Sushi and M Kokko.
What other restaurants or establishments do you love to go to in Durham and why?
There are so many great choices -- it's hard to mention them all. Nana's and Mateo are always amazing. I love checking out the special menus at Littler and Piedmont. Delicious late night snacks and beverages at Ally Twenty Six and Dashi are always a treat. There are tons and tons more.