Just as throngs of schoolgirls with pierced tongues shop at Old Navy these days, sushi is no longer an alternative dining decision in this country. It's now possible to find pristine hamachi at the base of a Wyoming mountain. Driving through central Florida, unagi is only as far as the next filling station. Even for many formerly staunch meat-and-potatoes eaters, a sushi habit has become as commonplace as pesto and frozen coffee drinks. Since few New Orleans neighborhoods are without one, it's a wonder that just this spring Phat Vinh Nguy was the first restaurateur to open a sushi restaurant in an of-the-moment neighborhood like Faubourg Marigny.
The arrangement bodes well for both Marigny residents and Nguy, formerly chef at Rock N' Sake -- for Marigny residents because they have one fewer reason to cross Canal Street or Claiborne Avenue; for Nguy because Marigny-ites, in gratitude that Wasabi landed in their neighborhood, are likely to stay true to the new business while he works out its kinks.
Housed in a former, practically windowless bar facing a tavern called The John, Wasabi doesn't immediately form the picture of sterility you might hope for a place that serves raw fish. Yet within both the drinking barroom and the adjacent, spot-free dining room, the lack of natural light creates an underground atmosphere that matches a facet of the Marigny's personality. As you duck in past the restaurant's only sign, which is about the size of a hubcap, you feel like you're someplace. Seated at the sushi bar next to the black-clad bassist from Astral Project, you feel like you're someone. Most importantly, from tuna that's the slick crimson color of cranberry juice, to yellowtail so clean you feel it rather than taste it, to salmon that leaves the sensation of pure butter on your tongue -- there's no question about the quality and the freshness of the fish used for Wasabi's sashimi and nigiri-sushi.
The question marks arise when you sit at the sushi bar one Saturday night and aren't met by the sushi chef. Sushi buffs like eating at the bar because it proffers intimate interaction with the chef and his product. Only a pane of glass separates you from the day's deliveries, and chefs are known to tell their bar customers about catches so obscure they never make it onto any menu. Like at other Japanese restaurants, the perks of sushi bar dining at Wasabi commence with gratis bowls of clear, smoke-scented soup and cold lagniappes, which one night comprised a vinegary mixture of squid and seaweed salads.
When two young employees replaced Nguy behind the sushi bar (one customer reported spotting the chef in the back kitchen), these free appetizers were the only benefits of a bar seat. Probably by fault of age alone, the greenhorns demonstrated all of the knife skills but none of the confidence and wisdom of a seasoned chef. Basic communication was an effort, and when I prodded for raw fish suggestions, I received a Dynamite Roll dripping mayonnaise and made with yesterday's salmon. It was only by the power of my intuition that I ended up with a fresh scallop so delicately sweet that it seemed wrong to swallow it. Even then, however, the rice was soft as gruel and contained hardly a touch of the vinegar that makes sushi rice a refreshing complement to the richness of raw fish. If I had been a first-time customer and not obliged by occupation to return, this would have been my final meal at Wasabi.
There's a moral to this story. If you don't see Nguy behind the bar (or his wife, Lisha, who I understand is a pro), sit at a table and choose from Wasabi's extensive menu of cooked things. At least a few of them begin to pardon the chef's scattered appearances. Coated in the stinging fibers of ginger and branded with grill marks, the B.B.Q. Tuna appetizer makes a convincing argument for well-done tuna. Earth and sea meld in a potent woodsy-salty perfume when shiitake mushroom caps are filled with bouncy shrimp stuffing and cooked with soy sauce and sake. A cast iron pot of Nabeyaki Udon contains enough soup to make two mouths sing. Starchy, pencil-thick wheat noodles mingle with scallops, grouper, carrots, oyster mushrooms, tempura shrimp and an over-easy egg in a light-colored broth that's as robust as a dark beef stock.
While the creamy wasabi-honey sauce slathering tempura-fried shrimp in another dish struck me as an odd, cloying green glue, other diners like it so much (my tablemates included) that it has become Wasabi's signature dish.
The competition for sushi rolls may never be as stiff as the competition for roast beef po-boys in this town, but it's getting close. The trend of over-stuffed specialty rolls is not particular to Wasabi, but failing to fit just one piece of the busy Futomaki Roll into my mouth, I did wonder where this movement is leading. Will they reach the breadth of Juan's burritos? Do we want them to? Marigny residents are staying tuned at their favorite new sushi joint; I'll be at mine.
- Cheryl Gerber
- If WASABI Chef-owner Phat Vinh Nguy (or wife Lisha) isn't around, diners might consider a break from the sushi bar and a tour of the restaurant's other Japanese dishes from the regular menu.