If you’re a fan of Asian food in the Triangle, you’re probably familiar with M Restaurants! Brought to you by Chef Michael Lee, M Restaurants offers up everything from sushi to tempura, fried chicken sandwiches, noodles, and more, a wide variety of cuisines with an Asian twist (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc.) His latest offering, M Test Kitchen, brings it all together under one roof in the popular Fenton District. And as someone who’s dined at all the M restaurants, I can tell you that they are certainly trying some different things and techniques on their menu while still staying true to the overall M philosophy. Read on to find out what to expect if you dine at M Test Kitchen!
M Test Kitchen, Cary – Location, Decor
If you’re not familiar with Fenton in Cary, I’d describe it as a work-live shopping district similar to North Hills but maybe even a step up in terms of luxury. M Test Kitchen sits front and center of the main Fenton shopping area, sharing a common entrance area and bathrooms with M Sushi. The space is long and narrow with a graphite-gray-silver color scheme from the polished concrete floors, seating, counters, and lighting. It all feels a bit austere and modern, the long bar on one side frames most of the dining room with an open kitchen at the end. Note that there is plenty of patio seating outside facing the main Fenton entranceway for fair-weather dining.
M Test Kitchen, Cary – Menu, Food
Given its name, M Test Kitchen will likely be evolving its menu pretty rapidly from month to month. For my first media visit, the menu was at version 1.1 and for my next visit about a month later, the menu was at version 2.2! In the parlance of developers, that’s a major rev and the menu was about 50% different from my earlier visit which gives you an idea of what to expect. The menu is organized by cold, warm, and sweet plates so expect to share! Prices are mostly between $13 to $35 and I’d expect to get 2 to 3 plates per person for a full meal. And given the evolving nature of the menu, if there’s something you like in particular, don’t wait too long for a repeat visit to order it again!
To start with, I’ve tried a large variety of cold and hot plates across a media (friends and family) visit and a paid visit. Everything I’ve tried has been loving plated and pretty experimental in terms of the flavor and ingredient combinations so M Test Kitchen certainly lives up to its name. So let’s roll through some of my favorite dishes but of course, they may no longer be on the menu when you read this review (sad trombone).
The blistered shishito peppers with edamame and umeboshi is a beautiful dish! Bright green pepper on top of an edamame puree with dots of pickled veggies. The textures are varied with this plate and it all comes together with a nice color palate. Two dishes to definitely get are the lobster shumai and Kani crab XO fried rice which are plays on Chinese-American classics! Shumai are typically steamed pork and shrimp dumplings but M Test Kitchen amps things up with a plump, lobster filling paired with a light peppery sauce and it just works so nicely. The Kani crab fried rice is an umami-laden bowl of seared rice with some plump shrimp on top. It reminds me a bit of the nasi goreng plate over at M Pocha but might even be better. DO NOT MISS!
The black cod in green curry sauce features a succulent piece of whitefish with crispy seared skin in a light, spicy broth. It plays with the dish in a fun way with the firm-fleshed fish in more of a Thai flavor combo. And the char siu ribs with cucumber features some grilled baby back rib pieces and slightly spicy cucumber slices. And don’t miss the classic grilled NY Strip with broccoli which offers a very upscale take on a Chinese take-out classic.
And despite all the delicious plates, you definitely need to save space for M Test Kitchen’s desserts! Sake Lee’s sorbet with strawberry is a light and clean palate cleanser while the deconstructed carrot cake with ginger ice cream offers a bit more flavor and punch in a delicious fall-flavor focused plate. Both will finish your meal off in style without filling you up much further.
M Test Kitchen, Cary – Service, Conclusion
Service at M Test Kitchen has been decent for me but they are a younger team and seem to be in learning mode. And if you eat inside, the narrow space makes it easy for your plates and service to show up at the table, not sure what service is like out on the patio. I’ve been a fan of Chef Mike Lee for ages, following his evolution from Sono in downtown Raleigh to M Sushi, M Kokko, M Pocha, and M Tempura in Durham. And then finally back to Cary for M Sushi Fenton and now M Test Kitchen.
I’ve always admired his ability to play with textures and the flavors of great ingredients coming up with dishes that were unique and distinctive without being over the top. His protege at M Test Kitchen, Chef Connor, brings the same sensibilities and we shall see how the menu evolves given the experimental nature of the restaurant. Is it perfect? Not yet but I do think with time, M Test Kitchen will get into its own groove. The menu is pretty good as-is but my expectations are that things will get further tuned and improved over time. And please keep the Kani Crab XO fried rice on the menu!