Wasabi: Pretentious Sushi, Presented Properly

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100 Plaza Dr #C, Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Wasabi
Phone: 716.689.5888
Rating:    [learn more]
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"From its sophisticated fish counter to the rest of its clean seating, Wasabi gets almost all of the emotional experience of dining at a Tokyo sushi bar right."

If maintaining the appearance of a perpetual line was enough to transform a good restaurant into a great one, Wasabi might have a shot at local immortality. Arrive without a reservation - or even with one - and you can expect the servers to give you a snooty little sign of disapproval even if 80% of the tables in the place are empty. This ill-placed snobbishness, however, goes hand-in-hand with dishes and plating that are a step above most of Western New York's Japanese restaurants; Wasabi's sushi routinely comes out looking photo-worthy and tasting at least as good, if not better than the best of its local competitors. That said, you'll be hard-pressed to leave a meal here feeling shocked at the overall experience; Wasabi serves very good meals with small but noteworthy omissions.

The Story: In California or Japan, sushi restaurants range in gravitas from dark and serious to bright, almost flippant shops with take-out counters or conveyer belts. For whatever reason, Western New York's Japanese restaurants always seem to be of the darker, more serious variety, and of those, only a few seem to mimic the zen-like balance of the best places we've visited in Japan. Wasabi is one of the good ones. Though it isn't a huge space, like the steakhouse Black & Blue, the balance of dark woods, stone, and metal has just the right look to convince you that you're in a place that's worth paying a little extra to sit in. Yet the prices aren't crazy; heated entrees run from $10-$16, and sushi combos from $14 and up. Those fearful of sushi can try a number of Westernized dishes - it's hard to go wrong with classics such as Teriyaki New York Strip Steak ($13), Shrimp Tempura ($5-14), or Grilled Chilean Seabass ($16) - but the real reason to come here is the Japanese fare.

Highs: From its sophisticated fish counter to the rest of its clean seating, Wasabi gets almost all of the emotional experience of dining at a Tokyo sushi bar right, down to its inclusion of subtle items such as fresh scallop and fatty tuna sushi that would be favorably looked upon by Japanese patrons. Additionally, Americanized sushi such as California Rolls ($4.50) and specialty rolls like the Crazy Tuna ($9.50), avocado and pepper tuna rolled with spicy tuna and tempura flake topping, are stronger on flavor and equally delicious. Shrimp Tempura and Spicy Tuna rolls ($5 each) are amongst the area's best, and not too expensive.

Other items, such as the beef-wrapped scallion dish Beef Negimaki ($4.50 to $13), are also good, though perhaps not great. Drizzled with a light sauce, the Negimaki arrived attractively topped and bottomed with greenery, as did the Teriyaki Chicken ($11); a heavily battered but tasty Soft Shell Crab also arrived looking ready for a photo shoot. The presentation here can be striking, even in the event that the taste of the food is not.

Lows: There is a modest qualification to our general praise for the food, including some of the sushi: while generally fresh-tasting, it's sometimes not as wet as we might expect. We twice tried the scallop sashimi, which was thinly sliced and attractively served inside a giant shell, finding it tasty but a little dry. Likewise, the Ika Maru - a grilled, sliced squid, or calamari minus the frying and breading - was as healthy tasting as one would expect, though not as moist. Additionaly, like other local sushi places, the menu never ranges into the territory of truly modern Japanese dining - you won't find Izakaya fare, Katsu curry, or other dishes that have increased in popularity outside Japan in the past ten years - but what's here is generally served very well.

One blemish on Wasabi's menu is its meager selection of generally unimpressive desserts. A $4.25 Tempura Ice Cream was forgettable, largely batter, chocolate sauce and whipped cream, while the Mochi Ice Cream $2.50 was merely two small supermarket-class soft rice and ice cream balls sliced in half, similarly garnished. Wasabi doesn't insult its patrons by charging outrageous prices for these items, but some real choices would be a major improvement over these.

Our most serious complaint about Wasabi is that its service can be off-putting. Putting aside the "reservations required" attitude that its wait staff is apparently trained to adopt, whoever came up with the not-so-brilliant idea of serving sushi on massive, collective dishes needs a real talking to. Given the tips they may or may not leave, customers should never need to reach over one another and sort through huge piles of sushi that the waiters or chefs neglected to allocate to specific patrons; this has happened to us twice in groups of six or seven, and is infuriating.

The Verdict: Rated purely on the quality of its food, Wasabi would be a 3.5-star restaurant, perhaps a little less on some days; there may be occasional failings, but it's hard to leave here with a meal that doesn't taste at least good for the price. Despite the trappings and the high prices for individual pieces of sushi, Wasabi's entrees, starters, and rolls are generally reasonably priced for what you get, so you can have a good if not totally filling meal for under $30 per person. We liked all of that, but didn't like elements of the service, which often make us feel less like treasured guests than people who happened to be occupying a table. Given its classy decor, good entrees, and well above average sushi options, Wasabi could be a complete powerhouse with attitude and dessert tweaks; we'll be watching to see if it improves in the future.

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