It is early on a weekday afternoon when I finish trudging up Bell, from Elliott to Second Avenue, and wander into the recently reopened Wasabi Bistro's lounge to find my friend waiting for me, folded into some modern chair design that looks about as inviting as one of those torturous Disneyland teacup rides. It's the first time I've seen the inside of Wasabi since its remodel, and I'm struck by the way the jutting light fixtures and geometric furniture are countered by soothing colors and cascading chandeliers. It's lunchtime, however, and I'm not here for the furniture. I'm hungry. So into a teacup I awkwardly sit, and pick up a menu.
Less than a week prior, some restaurant owner kindly informed me that I was (with all due respect) a restaurant's worst nightmare. This was not my favorite 2011 moment, as I harbor a deep distress over the idea of inconveniencing people. I had a lot of siblings growing up, and was raised in the belief that if one could avoid it, one should not cause a "hassle" for anyone else. So the knowledge that my eating habits may be irking others makes the already-complicated matter of ordering even more complex with anxiety.
None of this is actually said for the sake of whining. I've been dealing with food allergies for years, and by now, all varying opinions of them are old news. Rather, I say this to frame the unique and outstanding nature of a very different attitude modeled by our server at Wasabi. Upon finding out about my dietary restrictions, he simply replied. "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of you."
New Wasabi Bistro is all shiny and modern. The decor practically screams "Fusion!" when you walk in the door, and the menu boasts a fusion-cuisine philosophy to back it up. "Traditional Japanese ingredients presented in a traditional style," they say.
We arrived in time for the lunch "bento boxes," an $18 selection of sushi, side dishes, and soup that is actually fully $18 worth of food. Pricey for the average lunch, but you can easily plan to skip dinner (and possibly breakfast and the next day's lunch . . . ) afterward, as the servings are more than ample. But it was our server's thorough knowledge of the menu, combined with his magnanimous attitude, that resulted in such a completely pleasant dining experience.
Since sesame is one of my most miserable allergies, and since most sushi isn't battered in anything, sesame is the one item I always, always bring up when I'm out for any kind of Asian food. So, as is my practice, I inquire about the dishes, do my best to understand what each option is, and then note to the server that I'm allergic to sesame. "Sure, not a problem," he says. "I'll pass that on to the chef."
As he begins to walk away, my friend remembers for me that I can't have normal soy sauce. "Hey, do you have Tamari?"
This apparently strikes a chord with the waiter, and he looks at my friend closely. "Are you allergic to wheat?" he asks. It is explained that, actually, I'm the one allergic to wheat, and I receive a disapproving glance. Oh, here it comes, I think, and internally roll my eyes. "You didn't tell me you were allergic to wheat," he says, walking back over and opening the menu with me again, and pointing to things that are in my order. "You can't eat this. Or this. Definitely not this."
I'm feeling meek, apologetic, and a little depressed since I'm hungry and lunch sounded like a nice idea. But he's already changed his tone to thoughtful and has started scribbling things on his notebook. "Anything else?" he asks, making sure I'm not holding back any other important information. I've already determined I'm having soy sauce with my sushi, so I'm not about to tell him I'm not supposed to. Therefore I say no. "OK!" he says, cheerfully. "Don't worry. We'll take care of you."
And with that, he's gone. I settle into my chair (as best as one can), blinking, sipping tea, and wondering what exactly "We'll take care of you" means.
Shortly after, I find out: He returns with the bento boxes and sets mine down in front of me, unstacking them with flair and explaining the items inside. Steamed vegetables have been substituted for tempura, extra sushi has replaced anything that might have had wheat, sesame seeds have been evicted, tamari provided, and an entirely different, gluten-free dessert substituted for the normal gluteny option. I'm in awe, and he's pretty convinced it was no big deal--nothing more than what a restaurant ought to do.
My diet, like some golf matches, comes with a handicap. And good restaurants, like good golfers, accept it and rise to the challenge. Speaking candidly, my least favorite aspect of my limited interaction with the aforementioned restaurant owner was that I couldn't think of a single comeback cutting enough to communicate this truth: If a restaurant owner, chef, or server thinks my food allergies are a nightmare for them, they should try trading places and living with the allergies for a while, to gain some perspective on how much infinitely worse it is to be an inconvenience than it is to be momentarily inconvenienced by someone else. And beyond that, how much infinitely worse to literally live in fear of eating, not knowing if food (fundamentally necessary for both survival and socialization) will send you into days of incapacitating illness, than it is to have to find the list of ingredients in a dish for the sake of a customer.
Wasabi Bistro, aside from providing genuinely excellent food and a highly enjoyable dining environment (except for those chairs), met my dietary restrictions with understanding and finesse, providing me with the rare opportunity to eat everything I was served, and walk away feeling both healthy and happy. Guilt-free dining at its best! This one gets my vote for "allergy friendly" lunch option in Belltown.
Wasabi Bistro is located at 2311 Second Avenue, and is open for lunch Monday-Friday from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. It is also open every day for dinner and cocktails, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.