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Wasabi Tao elevates the sushi bar

2/20/2013

Salmon belly with “Japanese foie gras” and tobiko at Wasabi Tao, 400 Walnut St., 777-3636, open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. and Saturday noon - 11 p.m.

Salmon belly with “Japanese foie gras” and tobiko at Wasabi Tao, 400 Walnut St., 777-3636, open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. and Saturday noon – 11 p.m.

During the four decades I’ve been writing about the local food scene, a few new places brought transformational upgrades to Des Moines. The all-prime 801 Steak and Chop House saved downtown dining. Bistro 43 precipitated a rebirth of fresh, seasonal and local menus. South Union and Basil Prosperi bakeries gave us our daily bread with artisan faith. Court Avenue Brewing Company showed that home brewing was a fine art not a hobby. Flying Mango and Café di Scala preserved old arts — all wood smoking and 100 percent scratch-made pasta respectively. After Wasabi Tao owner-chef Jay Wang (who already raised the sushi bar at Wasabi Chi) told me he’d recruited a New York City partner who is “a better itamae (chef) than I am,” I began to anticipate a new such blessing.

When those two were remodeling the old Zen/Cuatro space in the Hotel Kirkwood, a large statue of Buddha arrived from New York, with $2,000 in shipping charges. It was too large to fit through any doors, not even a newly-constructed, ADA-compliant door. So they removed a window and some wall around it. Buddha brought good vibes. Large, red, wrap-around booths, paper lanterns, a 13-foot sushi case, and back-lit onyx panels mesh with the marble bar of this Deco building. Wasabi Tao’s leaf (or fish) logo is stenciled on painted walls. Pillars are covered with Des Moines River pebbles. Similar concern for details shows in stylish dinnerware and cocktail glasses — including a two-part sake chiller.

Cocktails included things I’d not seen before in Iowa — hibiscus syrup, whole hibiscus flowers, lychee juice, elderberry extract, etc. They were served with edamames that had been sprinkled with chilies and sea salt. Special appetizers (only served during slow hours) dazzled. Thin slices of striped bass were presented with salty roe, wasabi oil and two sauces. Unbreaded sea bass cakes were served with salmon roe, freshly-picked radish greens and lemon sauce. Salmon belly was complemented with Japanese foie gras (fish liver) and roe on a colored, lemony ponzu. A “once in a lifetime roll” covered Hawaiian Big Eye and daikon in soy nori with chopped salmon belly on top, and two sauces and salmon roe aside.

Excellent regular menu appetizers included: “tuna dumplings” (with wrappers made of tuna) stuffed with crab meat, avocado and roe in a wasabi aioli; crunchy soft-shell crabs, served in pieces, with a mango puree in its sauce; a duck salad featuring marinated and crisply-fried breast on baby greens, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes in vinaigrette made with lime juice and fish sauce; and delectable eggplant baked in homemade soy-and-honey marinade. Calamari rings were the most pedestrian thing I tried.

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Sushi or sashimi menus stood out for the quality of fresh fish and presentations — far more like trendy places in New York or Las Vegas than the Midwest. Kumamoto oysters, with roe and salsa, were so fresh they tasted like the sea. So did generous uni (sea urchin roe) sushi wrapped in cucumber. A simple sushi-sashimi combo plate included 13 pieces of fish and a tuna roll, layered over a plate, a banana leaf and a casserole dish. It was topped with a rose carved out of tuna. Rainbow rolls included tuna, salmon, whitefish, roe and avocado on top of a California roll wrapped in soybean nori. Even fried ice cream and bananas were stylishly presented with fresh whipped cream and raspberry and chocolate sauces.

Bottom line — Wasabi Tao is the kind of place that foodies travel long distances to enjoy.

Side Dishes A joint venture of Cherry Berry and Taco John’s opened in Norwalk with plans for at least six more in the metro this year… La Hacienda moved back to its original location on Army Post Road. CV

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