752 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222
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Buffalo Japanese Sushi
"True to the server's claim, all of the sushi was fresh, including the easily spoiled sea urchin, which was spot-on perfect and sweet; albacore and eel were also great."
Despite the growth of dedicated izayakas, curry shops, noodle parlors and shabu-shabu restaurants elsewhere in the United States and Japan, Western New Yorkers have three primary options for Japanese food: sushi, hibachi, and tempura-teriyaki houses, plus places that do two or all three. Williamsville's Wasabi follows this pattern, with sushi that rivals any place in the area, and a tempura-teriyaki menu that's good, but a little less exciting. Now Elmwood Avenue has its own Wasabi, which is roughly as impressive as the prior location in the sushi department, but reduces the size of both the dining area and the kitchen. Regardless, it offers a fine replacement for the venue's former, sushi-heavy tenant Kuni's.
Unlike its relatively spacious suburban predecessor, which sometimes seems to be keeping a line just to keep a line, the Elmwood location of Wasabi is a small restaurant: a patio outside has just enough room for three two-person tables - an extra person or two can be squeezed inside the gated area - while the inside has around four times that capacity, including a sushi bar. Elmwood's menu has been pared down from the Williamsville location's to three total pages of appetizers, sushi, and kitchen entrees, plus a page of wines, beers, and other beverages; in the process, it lost entrees such as noodle dishes and fried Katsu cutlets. The only non-sushi entree options left are a bunch of teriyaki variants and one tempura dish, so by the standards of Japanese places inside and outside of Western New York, this menu's very simple.
With fewer cooked items as alternatives, sushi takes on a new prominence at the Elmwood Wasabi, so we were pleased to discover that it's really good. "What's especially fresh today?" we asked our server, giving her an opportunity to steer us away from something that wasn't quite right, and towards something that might impress us. "Everything," she said, matter-of-factly. "Nothing especially good?" we tried again, No, she indicated. So we ordered a few sushi items that we use as litmus tests of freshness: pieces of sea urchin ($3), eel ($2.25), and albacore tuna ($2.25), as well as a Spicy Tuna Temaki Roll ($5) and a $7 "two rolls" meal with one Crunchy Spicy Tuna Maki Roll (normally $5) and a Yellowtail Maki Roll (normally $3.50).
True to the server's claim, all of the pieces and rolls were fresh, including the easily spoiled sea urchin, which was spot-on perfect and sweet; the large slice of albacore was just a touch under ideal, and the broiled eel was served only a little above lukewarm but otherwise moist, delicious, and wonderfully glazed. The Yellowtail Maki was notable for its use of scallions, which spiced up the normally mild roll, and both tuna rolls were noteworthy for using a mix of shredded and chunked tuna - this gave them a wonderful consistency and texture to go with their lightly spicy flavor. We liked or loved literally every piece of sushi we tried.
The kitchen fare, not so much. We started with bowls of Seafood Hot & Sour Soup ($5), which were boring, very modestly soured and slightly peppered miso broths that had far too little seafood at the bottom and plain sliced mushrooms floating on top. Even as fans of miso, neither of us liked the soup much. A plate of Ika Maru ($7) - grilled, soy-marinated squid sliced into ring and tentacle sections - was in parts seriously overcharred, in other parts totally fine, and three of our group of five people shrugged off their simple Green Salads ($2.50), lettuce, cucumber slices, and cherry tomatoes with a very light ginger dressing.
Non-sushi entrees received passworthy comments. A Beef Negimaki Dinner ($13) was perhaps the best of the bunch, divided into 11 pieces of grilled beef rolled around scallions and covered in a semi-sweet teriyaki sauce. By contrast with the fresh sushi, the beef was chewy and tasted a little old, and the simple collection of cooked, teriyaki-glazed vegetables served alongside it tasted fine, but were lukewarm to cold. Similar vegetables accompanied a plate of Grilled Chilean Sea Bass ($16), which emerged as pieces of an exceptionally thin, seemingly light-battered and peppered fish that didn't taste like the specified fish, but was otherwise okay, though pricey. Finally, there was the Chicken Teriyaki Combo ($7.25), a plate with very small portions of grilled, teriyaki-glazed chicken, two tiny fried Gyoza dumplings, two small portions of salad and unappealing vegetables, and a California Roll. The plate was cheap, the Roll was very good, the Gyoza tasted surprisingly light and fresh, and the chicken was as expected. But our group member didn't like the seasoning used on the vegetables, or the salad.
In the end, everyone at the table had wound up with something good or great, and something not so great - thus, our group members' individual ratings ranged from 2 to 2.75 stars, with three people at 2.5, the consensus number. But this "fair to good" average obscures the superiority of the sushi, which should sate even knowledgeable diners, and the inferiority of the kitchen fare, which is unimpressive in scope and execution. Given what the sushi-heavy Kuni's offered patrons in the same location before, it was surely easy for Wasabi to offer a subset of its menu here and satisfy patrons, but this strikes us as a missed opportunity to do better: an Elmwood venue is uniquely positioned to experiment more - izakaya fare, anyone? - and maybe even teach its many suburban rivals a thing or two. But another good, small sushi place will have to do for now, and if Wasabi keeps the fish this fresh, it may well never have a reason to change.