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Interesting meal at Wasan

I normally don't bother cross-posting a Yelp review to here on Chowhound -- usually, I end up Yelp-reviewing places I've been turned onto BY Chowhound, so that they get a bit wider exposure -- but I thought that Wasan deserved a bit more discussion than it seems to be getting, so...

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"Semi-frozen salmon sashimi": you have to give some begrudging respect to a place that'll put that on its menu.

After welcoming a convive to NYC last year with Recette's iconoclastic New American plates, I thought the even more offbeat Japanese fare at Wasan would be right for her return this year. Unlike most serious Japanese restaurants, which will unhesitatingly proclaim the Hokkaido provenance of their fish or whatnot, Wasan instead rings the locavore bell. "Local" may be the magic buzzword when it comes to American food these days, but here in NYC the opposite might be said of Japanese cuisine. So the whole concept of Wasan is sort of outre.

Wasan is outre in more than just concept -- that semi-frozen business isn't even the half of it. Here's another thing off the menu: "Open roll sushi filled with red onion, jalapeno, and shiso, topped with fish of the day marinated with shiso pesto, covered with mozzarella and grilled." Grilled sushi? Shiso pesto? Mozzarella? The purist in me shudders. It sounds like fusion cuisine from hell, Sushi Samba as run by Beelzebub.

And yet, things made a weird sort of sense when they actually hit your tongue. The cold cheese tofu managed to surprise despite tasting exactly like a mix of cheese and tofu, its firmly creamy mass accented by a fresh tomato pulp cap and a concentrated dashi broth. Mussels went well with a shallow layer of tasteful wasabi mayo. Anago tonkotsu (fried breaded sea eel) had all the crunch that makes tonkotsu appealing, then upped the ante with a moist interior not so often found in the form. Even that crazy open roll (which was, I must point out, rather closed) turned out to be tasty, the rice, mozzarella, and lightly cooked fluke combining into something far better than it deserved to be.

But there were two out-and-out highlights. Foie gras sushi has been done before, but the strawberry balsamic vinegar glaze on the foie gras here paired perfectly with the vinegar of the (very respectable) sushi rice, everything melting together blissfully. And a simple bedding of crisp endive gave the sinfully fatty piece of "sushi" a fine textural counterpoint.

And the "uni lover" was, quite simply, the third-best uni-containing prepared dish I have had in NYC. (Soto has my #1, Kyo Ya #2; sorry, Marea.) A generous amount of uni was perched on a small mound of avocado, which was in turn on some kind of salty, homemade uni "chip". A garlic-peanut oil concoction was drizzled on top. All those other ingredients should have threatened to overwhelm the delicacy of the uni, and yet the elements melded into this perfect storm of sublimely balanced flavors. There are two major ocular responses to exceptional bites: closing one's eyes, or opening them wide. I did both.

In a place that takes so many liberties with convention, you can't expect everything to be perfect. The eggplant with garlic sauce in one of my convive's dishes was reportedly wonderful, but on the same plate the shrimp tempura had an interesting but ultimately superfluous tortilla chip crust. An asparagus mousse with king crab was disappointingly weak in both of its major components. And that salmon sashimi? My convive put it best: "Well, if nothing else, it's perfectly semi-frozen."

Should I forgive Wasan its missteps? Eating is sometimes all about expectations. The ultra-Japanese Brushstroke recently left me faintly unsatisfied, suffering compared to the near-perfection of my kaiseki experiences in both Japan and the East Village's Kajitsu. But a place that sells semi-frozen sashimi defies any and all expectations simply by existing. Like Jackie Chan's "drunken master" character, Wasan's off-kilter stylings lulled me into a vulnerable state, then hit me right between the eyes.

Sure, you can Aburiya yourself into more authentic waters, Kyo Ya your way to Kyoto. Wasan delights with something different: a sense of humor backed up by formidable technique. It's a trait shared by precious few (Shopsin's, M. Wells, Momofuku Ssam), and it should be celebrated.

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Wasan
108 E 4th St, New York, NY 10003

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  1. I'm fascinated by the grilled open roll. Definitely on my list of places to try now.

    How is the portion size? Do you need to order a whole bunch of items to be satisfied, or can you be reasonably full after ordering 2-3 items from the menu?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cheeryvisage

      I would say that the a la carte portions are quite small. The most egregious offender is the foie gras "sushi", at two pieces for $12 (!). On the other hand, the prix fixe menus ($35 and $45) are actually good deals, with a fair amount of choice afforded to the diner.

      For my part, I usually throw price-to-portion ratios out the window when I go to high-quality Japanese restaurants, but YMMV.

    2. Semi-frozen salmon is a regional dish of Hokkaido. One of my friends from Hokkaido calls it his comfort food... For some reason, cold cheese tofu seems to be getting popular in Japan these days- usually as a pairing for chilled sake. I see it at a lot of classy izakaya over there....I liked the uni dish just fine, but I definitely didn't find it as ethereal as you....Checking out their latest website, looks like they now serve brunch on weekends. Wonder how that is?

      1 Reply
      1. re: Silverjay

        Yeah, it looks like they're doing the katsu sandwich thing, which I'll never argue with, though one wonders how much of an upgrade their version would be over the Panyas of the world.

        Thanks for the info regarding the semi-frozen salmon; my Yelp review was updated accordingly, heh. Next up, Yuba.

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        Panya
        8 Stuyvesant St, New York, NY 10003

        Yuba
        105 E 9th St, New York, NY 10003

      2. Sounds like putting on my list of things to try. Do you mind if I ask how much this set you back? Was this the omakase or ala carte?

        Also, if you are hunting down interesting uni preparations you should drop by Ssam bar and see if they are still doing their uni starter- I had it there just a few weeks ago and it was fantastic. It's a "cone" made of crispy fried guanciale and filled with uni, with slices of pear. Totally unexpectedly awesome and memorable.

        1. i like the cute space, and i like that they serve wines, but i haven't been thrilled by the food (have prob been 4 times: once for dinner w/ several dishes shared, once solo for a couple dishes at the bar, and a couple times for a quick glass of wine)...for me, it's decent place to stop in for a glass of wine and maybe a snack, but nothing i've had foodwise has made me want to rush back...

          1. Has anyone been here lately? I have reservations with a group of 6 tomorrow. Hopefully they have not slipped, as it appears that we are in for a treat. Does anyone have rec's of specific dishes or which set menu is best? We are looking for composed dishes and nigiri or sashimi. I'm looking forward to the foie gras sushi.