Including Wasabi, located midway along the renovated Washington Avenue corridor downtown. Where, on a chilly Friday night, Jong Wook Lee and his staff stood behind the sushi bar and shouted the traditional welcoming cry, "Irasshaimase!" as we entered his new restaurant. A kimono-clad hostess scurried to greet us at the renovated building's entrance, where we were taking in the room's clean look: green-tea hues, a high ceiling with exposed galvanized ducts and bamboo-covered pillars, plus a massive mural of Mount Fuji behind the sushi bar. Welcome to the warm world of gracious Japanese dining.
Lee previously performed his magic across the river at Japanese Garden in O'Fallon, Illinois, where he honed a reputation for taking the art of sushi seriously. In Japanese culture, understatement is the greatest art. I know wasabi refers to the pungent root that's made into the distinctive (and sinus-clearing) flavoring so prevalent in sushi bars, but I can't help but draw a link between the words wabi (meaning quiet and simplicity) and sabi (meaning understated elegance) when I'm watching a sushi chef of Lee's caliber construct edible works of art. While he's not exactly fashioning dumplings into translucent lotus flowers (I saw that once on Iron Chef), he is presenting beautiful little etudes from the sushi bar, from the slices of fresh tuna sashimi angled against pillows of shredded daikon radish to the thin ribbon of nori (pressed seaweed) uniting rice to eel in the unagi nigiri, with, of course, a full array of maki, or rolls, in between.
If you're not fluent in the language of sushi, it can all be overwhelming, to be sure. There's a chart on each table to aid with translation, but more helpful would be full descriptions right on the menu. You can get those on Wasabi's Web site (www.wasabistl.com), but if you're at the restaurant and want to know details, be prepared: Explanations can turn into a full-blown presentation by your server, minus the Power Point slides.
Your best bet is to just relax and order what you want to taste, with an eye toward what your waiter says is freshest. (One night hirame (flounder) was available, its flavor deliciously mild.) But your first step after wiping your hands with the customary proffered steamed towel should be an order apiece of edamame (lightly salted boiled soybeans, still in their little green pods) and kyoza, the equivalent of Chinese potstickers. I swear the soybeans were tossed in butter -- they were as addictive as beer nuts.
Wasabi offers several combination dishes, or moriawase, under the menu headings of tempura, sushi, maki and sashimi. All moriawase are preceded by a cup of miso and a forgettable iceberg lettuce salad with a spicy dressing, and accompanied by rice. By far the best value is the "Wasabi Combo": sushi, maki and sashimi. This filling meal is composed of eight California rolls (made with crab stick), two slices of ruby-colored maguro (yellowfin tuna), three slices of cream-hued hamachi (yellowtail), two slices of salmon, one slice of sweet-fleshed red snapper and inari, a thin slice of tofu soaked in a sweet syrup and set atop sticky rice.
Other entrées include three bento combos (teriyaki chicken, seafood or beef), three tempura combos (shrimp or seafood with vegetables, or the vegetables all by themselves), udon and soba noodle combos, three donburi -- "rice bowls" with your choice of smoked freshwater eel, tuna or marinated beef -- and one chirashi (a box of seasoned rice topped with sliced raw fish, ginger, wasabi and a dash of sugar). A teriyaki beef combo was served in a covered bento box. Removing the lid was like opening a treasure chest: five compartments, each containing a different delight. Teriyaki isn't surprising, but it's a great dish when complemented, as this was, by a small assortment of sushi, maki, tempura, grilled onions and egg fried rice.
For those in the mood for unrestrained grazing, Wasabi offers sushi okonomi, an all-you-can-eat gorgefest at the sushi bar for $39.95. (Face it: When all you want is sushi, the sushi bar is the place to be. It's a different world when you can talk to the chef, pick your own fish, watch art in progress and be served right from the counter.) At our table, however, we sampled slices of toro -- the rich, fatty belly portion of the tuna -- smoked eel and flounder, all prepared as nigiri.
When it comes to maki, many Japanese restaurants incorporate American ingredients to create signature rolls. For his part, Lee takes a basic California roll and adds real crab and a wasabi cream drizzle to create his Washington Avenue roll. The Wasabi special roll was more interesting, with a topping of fresh sliced tuna and a spicy, crunchy sprinkle of deep-fried tempura batter and finely ground tuna. Better yet was the M&B roll: smoked eel glazed with a sweet sauce atop a California roll.
If you're truly adventurous and want to pop for $99.95 (per person, plus a week's notice!), Lee will prepare a multicourse extravaganza centered on fugu -- the blowfish notorious for its lethal toxins. (Of course, Lee assures, he's specially certified to prepare such a dish.)
I know about as much about sake as I do about fugu, so the sake menu came in handy. Wasabi offers a variety of the rice wines, from the house brand (served hot or cold) for $3.50 to the high-end boutique stuff, which goes for $35 a half-bottle. An abbreviated roster of California wine from reliable vintner R.H. Phillips is available, by the glass ($5.50 to $6) or bottle ($24), while a more extensive selection of Japanese plum wines are offered ($6 to $6.50 a glass, $24 to $27 a bottle). We stuck to beer, washing down our meals with bottles of Kirin and Sapporo. True to Japanese restaurant form, desserts at Wasabi are limited to ice cream (in unusual but delightful flavors such as wasabi, green tea and red bean) and fried ice cream.
With the opening of Wasabi, Kitchen K down the street and Infierno, the new late-night Mexican eatery that took over the Hungry Buddha space, Washington Avenue's stock as a restaurant destination is rising. After all, how many lounges can one possibly visit without pausing to eat something?