Wasabi moves west6/22/2016
Twenty-some years ago, American sushi joints began opening outside Japanese neighborhoods in California and Hawaii. Soon after that, a sociologist published an infamous study determining that, at age 41, Americans crossed the “adventure line” — the point in life when one stops being interested in trying new things.
The willingness to eat raw fish for the first time was a large part of his study. The 41 thing convinced a lot of sushi restaurant owners to concentrate on neighborhoods with young demographics. College towns made sense, Midwest suburbs did not.
A couple of decades later, the college kids and young professionals who were originally targeted as sushi pioneers have grown up and now have mortgages and families and are living in the suburbs. Jay Wang, who grew up in New York City and Philadelphia, is one of those recently grown-up people. He has also recruited some 20 other Asian Americans from the coasts to Central Iowa, where suburban public schools and the price of houses acted as his closers.
Even so, Wang’s first three Iowa restaurants were in the city of Des Moines. Early this month, he opened his first suburban sushi café, Wasabi, at ground zero of the Waukee-West Des Moines border war. It’s been crazy busy from day one, particularly for dinner. (Part of the crowded scene might be because it’s been too hot to eat on the large patio and everyone has crowded inside the two air-conditioned dining rooms.) Wang and friends could probably have careers in interior design. Wasabi Chi, his first place, got its chi from perfect feng shui. Wasabi Tao went for a more downtown look with Des Moines River fossils scaped into wall textures. Wasabi is more modern, with a smart, sexy bar; backlit colored glass; and textured walls. Tableware is more practical here than in the Des Moines places with less bamboo and fewer tiered presentations.
The staff seemed remarkably prepared for such a young restaurant. Itamaes moved from flame blowers to sharp knives without rest. A semi-open kitchen revealed a similar pace. Front-of-the-house personnel were accommodating and helpful.
Like the other Wasabis, this one usually offers a special or two involving a fresh shipment of exotic fish from Hawaii. It’s worth asking about. My most recent visit featured such with baby yellowtail that Wang made into ceviche. It upgraded an already sensational cold starters menu that includes, among other things, a salmon belly carpaccio with orange, tobiko and yuzu dressing and a crispy duck salad with candied walnuts, fresh arugula and lime juice that neutralized the saltiness of fish sauce dressing. The duck — generous for a $10 dish — was perfectly crisp, fatty and meaty.
Rolls included most standards plus a couple things you don’t often find here: a rice-free wasabi roll with crab, salmon, tuna and avocado wrapped in cucumber and topped with yellowtail; and a lobster tempura roll with mango and avocado wrapped in soy paper. Nigiri lovers such as I respect that Wasabi makes its sushi with Tamameshiki rice, Japan’s favorite rice that is rarely seen outside that country. It is the New Mexican chile of Japan — a hybrid epiphany. Wasabi flavors its rice with seaweed dashi.
Tempura, spare ribs, seared scallops, jumbo crispy shrimp and crispy whitefish are reliably excellent at Wasabi. Its version of red curry simmers on an elevated plain. I love Thai-style curries. I order them everywhere and make them at home frequently. I have never found a coconut milk or cream as rich and accommodating to chilies as Wasabi’s version.
Side Dishes: Food Dude has been hearing great things about Nacho Tequilas, a new Mexican café in the former Saigon building on N.W. 86th Street in Clive. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
9500 University Ave., West Des Moines
Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.;
Monday – Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m.;
Friday –Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-9 p.m.