New Yorker story1/6/2016
When Jay Wang opened Wasabi Chi in 2011, he said he wanted to bring New York-style sushi to Des Moines. I asked him last week what that means. “I think it’s more accurately called East Coast-West Coast sushi. In New York and California, the best sushi is based around fresh fish and short grain sushi rice. We use Tamameshiki rice, and I think we are still the only place here that does.”
That attention to detail expresses what is special about Wasabi Chi, Wasabi Tao and Wasabi, which will open this spring in the Waukee-West Des Moines borderland. Most people don’t notice the rice in sushi, in fact it’s so unimpressive to the average diner that sashimi (no rice) is the best seller on Wasabi menus. As my granddaughter says (regarding vegans), “Those poor people don’t know what they’re missing.” Tamameshiki is a divine combination of Koshihikari and Yumegokochi rices. It is the New Mexican chile of Japan — a hybrid epiphany. Koshihikari was first created in 1956, by combining two different strains of Nourin No. 1 and Nourin No. 22. It is the most popular rice in Japan but little appreciated elsewhere. Yumegokochi is a subtly different variety of Koshihikari. I was proud of the Japanese rice I used at home before I asked Wang what he thought of them and saw the disdain in his face. Wang and Wasabi Tao chef Tony He both flavor their rice with a seaweed dashi.
Japanese cuisine is the subtlest in the world. Chefs argue about which prefecture grows the best Koshihikarai and prepares the best ramen. Japanese is, to my knowledge, the only cuisine that abhors garlic because it lacks subtlety. “Garlic eaters” is a Japanese slur for Koreans and Chinese. Wang and He are Chinese guys who have mastered the subtle art of Japanese cooking. Both immigrated to New York from Fujian, a culinary rich region of China. They trained in Japan and worked in New York and Philadelphia before discovering the friendly cost of living and superior public school systems of central Iowa. Between their two operating restaurants, they have recruited 20 other Asian-Americans to move here from the east and west coasts.
These chefs have Formaro-esque dedication to their craft. Their vacations are fishing explorations. They have tested more than 200 recipes for ramen in preparation for their fourth restaurant, which will be a ramen house. Their restaurants specialize in fish that one seldom sees in middle America — aji (horse mackerel), amberjack, live scallops, Japanese skipjack and madai (Japanese snapper). Their personal favorite fishes are yellowtail belly, sea urchin and black cod.
They pay devotion to detail and ingredients in other categories. Cocktails feature things one rarely sees in Iowa — hibiscus syrup, whole hibiscus flowers, lychee juice, elderberry extract, etc. They are served with edamame sprinkled with chilies and sea salt. Other than their love of Japanese food, these chefs and their restaurants aren’t that similar. Tony lives downtown and Jay, who is expecting his second child in February, in Grimes. Wasabi Chi caters far more to families and Wasabi Tao to young professionals.
Presentations and pairings are spectacular. I have been dazzled by striped bass served with salty roe, wasabi oil and multiple sauces made with fresh fruits. Unbreaded sea bass cakes are served with salmon roe, freshly-picked radish greens and lemon sauce. Salmon belly is complemented with Japanese foie gras (fish liver) and roe on a colored, lemony ponzu. Uni (sea urchin roe) sushi is wrapped in cucumber.
For these and many more reasons, Tony and Jay are my chefs of the year and Wasabi Chi and Wasabi Tao are my restaurants of the year. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.