Saturday, 3 March 2007

A Place of Paradoxes

I heard some good things about Wasabi on Broadway, so when I got there on Friday night I was in a sense not surprised that there were quite a few contrasts as soon as I got there. First, two-storey 19th-century stucco houses are hardly used for Asian restaurants; how often do you see big-city Asian restaurants in places other than boxy commercial buildings? Second, in front of this house that, along with the knee-high iron fencing, blends with the surrounding Broadway West neighbourhood is a smart sign with the restaurant's name in silver cursive letters and outlined with soft magenta neon light. Third, this old house belies the snazzy contemporary interior with both floors used for dining. Fourth, I was seated at a table where across the room I faced a poster of sakura blossoms; with that feisty snowstorm the previous day, spring seems so close, yet so far.

Wasabi is not your "tyipcal" Japanese restauarant where more traditional dishes are served. In fact, this place serves Neo-Japanese ("Shin-Nihon"?) cuisine, with a strong emphasis on the use of fresh and almost always raw seafood. Yes, that means this restaurant is absolute heaven for sushi and sashimi lovers. The decor handily emphasizes the contemporary style. Dark browns and light beiges dance with each other on walls and furniture, accented by a couple of Imperial red walls. Tealights are abound in all forms of holders that fit well with the interiors, and the dim overhead lamps are covered with Japanese-style square shades.

After sipping for a few minutes on my genmai cha, millet-flavoured green tea, a wondrous drink of which I can never have enough, my 8-piece sushi order was first to arrive. I forgot what fish the 8th piece was, but I definitely remember the two types of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, squid and octopus I savoured. I don't recall having sushi where the chef did not botch the rice ball portion by compacting it too tightly, not only helping to enhance flavours (as I learned from Good Eats' yours truly), but also to prevent the pieces from being too chewy (unlike the ones I've had from T&T Supermarket, although admittedly they are more travel-friendly because of the compaction). I also took the opportunity to finally try the pickled purple ginger that came as a side with the sushi. Although it worked wonders as a palate cleanser, let's just say that my taste buds convinced me to not have anymore of that stuff.

Though the sushi itself was very good, the "New Style Sashimi" raised the stakes very nicely. Using salmon, bluefin tuna and sea bass, the thin slices were oh so gently pan-seared on one side with olive oil (you read it right, in true avant-garde Japanese style), then lightly sprinkled with shoyu, black and white sesame seeds, green onions and some slivers of regular ginger. The sesame seeds added some nice crispiness and there was just enough shoyu to help bring out the wonderful flavours of the fish. In spite of olive oil having its own flavour that sometimes can conflict with Asian food, this dish didn't pronounce any conflict and was a wonderful twist to traditional sashimi.

Sensing that I still had room for a bit more, I decided to try the "Volcano Roll". This one's a maki-style dish with the rice wrapped around nori which in turn is wrapped around some sweet eel and generous slices of avocado (about three times as thick as what you'd find in supermarket California rolls). Though the sushi itself was good, on its own it would have been on the plainer side. Enter the warm sauce then, and it's this sauce, made with spicy Japanese mayo, tobiko (flying fish roe) and chopped scallops, that gave this dish its name and the wonderful bang to the palate. The result is a dish that is warm, creamy, zingy and absolutely decadent.

There were so many other dishes that I wanted to try (the sunomono salad, served in martini glasses, looked very tempting), but one can only eat so much. This place is one of those restaurants where you get better value (especially gastronomically) if you have others with you to share different dishes and to better experience the creative capabilities of Wasabi's sushi chefs. This is because most of the portions served, including the sushi dishes, are more or less appetizer-sized.

Perhaps when I'm with some people and I've saved up some more money I could try "Omakase", where I'd be completely at the creative mercy of these chefs; requesting "Omakase" basically shows your confidence in the chefs' skills, and it allows the chefs to indulge you with their best and most creative dishes they can conjure.

Name: Wasabi on Broadway
Address: 588 Broadway, Winnipeg, MB
Cuisine: Neo-Japanese
Price Range: Lunch [unknown]; Dinner $30-70
Accessible: 1st floor only

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