Nyack’s Wasabi puts a hip spin on traditional Japanese fare
by ANITRA BROWN
Nyack has one of those rarities in America: a downtown so lively and thronged with people that you realize what we’ve lost — and also why we abandoned it: parking anxiety. So leave a little extra time if you’re driving to Wasabi, an out-of-the-box
Japanese restaurant that audaciously pairs yellowtail with jalapeÃ±o and salmon with apple in the Omakase Creations for which Vietnamese chef-owner Douglas Nguyen is known.
Wasabi’s non-traditional approach begins with the stylishly modern dÃ©cor. Five large square mirrors framed in black wood hang above long, backlit banquettes filled with pretty young women with blonde highlights and cell phones. White paper lanterns hang from a black ceiling, and two walls of vivid green and rich mustard are splashes of color in an otherwise muted palette. Chopsticks rest on black river stones, and each table is set with red roses in a low black vase. Even though it’s a Thursday night, this place has been packed since 6 p.m.
If you’re used to the traditional Japanese menu, Wasabi can be a little disorienting. While you can get all the sushi and miso soup your heart desires, the Omakase Creations and Small Plates are what set Wasabi apart.
On our first visit we had an outstanding waiter who helped us navigate the tantalizing choices, explaining that the Omakase Creations are cool dishes built around raw fish, while the Wasabi Small Plates are warm dishes that tend to be more filling. “You should order five or six dishes for two people,” he recommended, and throughout the meal graciously answered our questions.
Unfortunately, our second visit was at the other end of the service spectrum. When I ordered a $10 glass of wine that was flawed and asked if I could have something different, the waitress gave me a dirty look and asked flatly, “Why?” When I explained the wine was oxidized, she retorted, “You mean you don’t like it.” And it didn’t end there. She didn’t tell us the specials and was unhelpful with menu questions. Then our food came out in reverse order, from heavy and hot to light and cool. Regulars were giving her hugs, so maybe they get treated well.
Both nights, a complimentary bowl of edamame, boiled green soybeans served warm in their shells with a generous sprinkling of salt, was delicious.
The wine list has a nice by-the-glass selection of 17 wines, and I recommend the pleasantly sweet late-harvest Riesling from Washington state’s Hogue Cellars ($7), which went very well with the food. Another good match is the Moscato ($8), a flowery sparkling wine from Italy that is billed as a dessert wine. Bottle prices range from $20 for Veuve de Vernay, a French sparkling wine, to $190 for Dom Perignon, but most are in the $20s and $30s. You can choose from 10 different sakes ranging from $6 for a glass of Gekkeikan to $90 for a large bottle of Hiko’s Reserve. The beer lover at the table wished for a more extensive beer list — it was limited to Japanese lagers — but Sapporo Reserve was full-flavored and hoppy. Lots of people were sipping stylish cocktails like the Wasabi Martini, made with iichiko (a Japanese white spirit akin to vodka) and lychee syrup.
The first night we started with the cool Omakase Creations, light dishes that delight the palate but at $12 to $16 each can quickly run up the bill. Still, make sure you order a few, like the Tuna Millennium ($14), served in a martini glass. A piece of tuna is cooked ever so briefly as tempura, then sliced and layered over a creamy Japanese mayonnaise flavored with wasabi and tiny granules of red flying fish roe (Tobiko), a sauce so delicious that I stole a last taste with my finger.
The Manhattan Sashimi ($13), slices of salmon served over finely diced green apple in a fruity rice-vinegar dressing, was nicely balanced with the generous spoonful of Black Tobiko (flying fish roe infused with squid ink) piled onto a large leaf of seaweed.
Our last cool dish was Yellowtail JalapeÃ±o ($14), which we tried for its sheer daring. The yellowtail was top quality and looked lovely on the austere white plate, which had been drizzled with green olive oil and Ponzu, a malt-colored dipping sauce traditionally made by boiling mirin (rice wine), rice wine vinegar, bonito flakes, and seaweed. The slices of jalapeÃ±o had been soaked in water so they had lost their fire. The flavor notes that were left didn’t add that much to the dish.
There was a perfectly paced pause before the first warm dish, a generous bowl of rock shrimp tempura ($14), small bites of shrimp in a thick, golden-fried batter rolled in a creamy, spicy chili sauce, a combination that was a little too heavy for me. Finally, the baked black cod ($15) came beautifully plated, an exquisitely silky piece of white fish cooked with sake and served on a white plate with a line of dots of a sweet dark eel reduction, a sauce that beautifully enhanced the flavor of the fish.
Here our waiter checked in, asking if we’d like to try one more dish. Well, there’s always room for one more, and we were intrigued by a special, the spicy tuna roll with strawberry. It was a delight to look at, with thinly sliced strawberries on the outside of the roll, and a refreshing surprise to the palate at the end of the meal.
On our second visit, we thought we’d start with some sushi and a roll before moving on to the heavier warm dishes. So we were surprised when the warmer, heavier Wasabi Small Plates came out first. Still, the Sashimi Risotto ($15) was excellent, a cylinder of warm rice with grated fresh parmesan cheese, topped with a beautiful rosette of fresh tuna slices. The baked sea scallops ($13) were served very hot in a scallop shell with a thick, creamy chili mushroom sauce that we might have liked more if we had been able to build up to it.
The yellowtail and tuna sushi ($3.50 per piece) came next and was good, but the rolls provide better value at $11 to $13. We especially liked the fresh water eel roll, with shrimp tempura and spicy sauce on the inside, and alternating pieces of eel and avocado on the outside.
You can also order entrÃ©es like king salmon filet with wasabi sauce and potatoes ($22), pan-seared duck with sweet chili sauce ($24), and a Wasabi Sushi Love Boat for Two ($55).
Dessert is the weakest course. We sampled three with the chef’s dessert tasting ($20), whose offerings change daily and don’t appear on the menu. The vanilla tempura ice cream was well done, but the green tea mascarpone cheesecake was dense and cold, and the chocolate truffle cake was overly rich without having fabulous chocolate flavors. The Asian black sticky rice pudding ($9) with sweet coconut cream, which looks like black bean soup, is good but a little odd for this American palate. More conventional choices like fresh fruit and crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e looked good.
Our first night, we enjoyed mugs of hot aromatic green tea. The second night, we weren’t even asked if we wanted any. Surprise, surprise. Both nights were very busy, but the way the staff treats you makes all the difference in whether you leave Wasabi feeling great or disgruntled. ■
Wasabi is located at 110 Main Street in Nyack. Lunch is served Tues.-Fri. noon- 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., and Sun. 4-9:30 p.m. Appetizers range from $2 for miso soup to $13 for rolls; small plates are $10-$15, entrÃ©es are $20-$24, and desserts are $7-$9. Reservations strongly recommended. 845-358-7977.