We still love sushi

Raw fish stands out at this jumping Japanese joint.

WASABI BISTRO

2311 Second, 441-6044 Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner daily 4 p.m.-1 a.m. AE, MC, V / full bar THERE'S A FLASH and a dazzle I associate with sushi bars that is notably absent from Wasabi Bistro, the eight-month-old Japanese restaurant in Belltown. Knives waving, blades gleaming, chef's fingers being narrowly missed—this is what I expect at a sushi bar, amid a busy bustle and noisy clatter. Wasabi is more composed than that. Oh, the tables are filled with plenty of the flashy and the dazzling, and the place is filled with a pleasant buzz (some of which nearly every night, it's worth noting, is in Asian accents). But the prevailing aesthetic is more uptown-sophisticated than knife-flashing lively. It's as sleek and stylish and dimly lit as every other Tom, Dick, and Marco in the neighborhood. The sushi bar itself, in the back of the room, is on the small side and too high to allow much in the way of theater. That's too bad, because owners James Han and Jun Hong, whose acquaintance dates from their tenure at the impressive I Love Sushi, turn out to be artful sushi slingers. Their list is tweaked with stylish innovations: The Las Vegas roll ($7) isn't merely the traditional eel, crab, avocado, and cream cheese; it's also deep-fried. The Nutty roll ($6), one of Hong's inspirations, mingles eel, egg, and roasted macadamia nuts. So the sushi's modern. We also found it solidly constructed and unimpeachably fresh. Off a list of two dozen rolls we ordered the Belltown ($8), which featured a brilliant hunk of raw salmon reposing across the top and was packed full of crab, cucumber, electric orange tobiko (flying fish roe), and slimy scallop. The Crunch roll ($7) was more interesting, with crab, scallop, mayo, tobiko, cuke, and crisps of texturally fun tempura. Nigiri sushi (raw fish or other ingredient over rice) also comes in two dozen varieties, of which we sampled three: king crab ($2.50), tuna ($2), and freshwater eel ($2). The first was fine; the second silken and melting; the last my favorite, firm-fleshed and delectable. We followed up with a plate of steamed sea snail ($8), a daily special, and found it agreeable (and of the approximate texture of calamari, for you fellow neophytes) in its lightly briny broth and seaweed-sesame seed topping. These sushi chefs may not flash their sabers; instead they've packed their dazzle into their creations. They're also exact—and the proof is in their product. But how are things out in the dining room? Iffier by a mile. Off the appetizer list we aimed first for the fire pepper prawns ($9), only to find the shrimp badly overcooked in a desultory sauce that featured too much fire and too little interest. Panko-coated calamari ($7) was the superior choice: the squid lightly breaded and glazed in a zingy soy-mirin compound. BETTER YET was the rice ball ($8), a fascinating invention of rice, tobiko, and tempura crisps rolled into a ball filled with snow crab and served over a hunk of ahi, with cabbage and wasabi as counterpoint. Delicious, slightly crunchy, and compulsively eatable, this one was also fun to regard: a furred orange snowball. Entr饳 hit, then missed. Shrimp and vegetable tempura udon ($12) was unremarkably fine, packed with seafood and noodles. The yakisoba ($16) was overpowered by a strongly flavored broth. My grilled breast of duck in mango-sherry sauce ($17) was tasty and crackling-fine in its sweet sauce, but arrived with inedibly dry, gingery mashed potatoes. (Mashed potatoes? I came to a Japanese restaurant for mashed potatoes?) The single hit of the evening was the Chilean sea bass ($18), marinated in miso kasuzuke to a moist and tasty turn and served with rice. Goodness knows I don't disparage fusion, innovation, or plain old experimentation in theory; such exploration gives restaurants their verve and individuality. But intriguing twists, of the sort that appear across the menu at Wasabi Bistro, can fail as frequently as they succeed. Much succeeds at Wasabi Bistro, primarily off the sushi list. But much does not. Take dessert: The reputation of the green tea tiramisu ($4.50) preceded it; I had heard it was a velvety delight. Velvety yes, but far too sweet for delight. Later we sampled the green tea tempura ice cream ($4.50) (green tea ice cream wrapped in pound cake and deep-fried) and confounded our palates with the weird interplay of sweet and savory. I admit this may be a matter of taste; others might adore it. Finally, there's a much more significant failing: service. Although all the hosts and waitstaff were unfailingly attentive, the problem here was ignorance. Basic questions regarding preparation and ingredients were met with blank stares and empty pledges to inquire. This is a shameful problem in a restaurant with pretensions this sophisticated, with food this unfamiliar, and with this much creative reach. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

 
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