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Restaurant Fri Jun 15 2007

Mushy Tuna Nightmare

Dubious Seared Tuna and Soft Shell Crab Tempura

As someone from Japan, I enjoy watching Japanese food gain popularity in this country. When my partner and I walked down Randolph this evening, I was pleasantly surprised that there were at least four trendy-looking sushi bars within five minutes' walk from each other. Our Friday dinner at one of them, Sushi Wabi, however, was a disappointment.

To be honest, I hadn't expected the food to be excellent. Given the location and the clientele, I'd figured the sushi restaurant would be focused more on atmosphere than the actual food. I was right; with cranky old school chairs, bare ceiling and a DJ, the atmosphere of the restaurant was decidedly hip. And the food was not that great, if slightly experimental.

The tempura soft shell crab was okay. It tasted like crab (hooray!), but the tempura batter was nowhere near as light and crispy as it should have been. I didn't taste any piquancy in the "spicy slaw" that came with it; it was rather salty. The "wasabi honey dipping sauce" that sold me on the dish did have a nice spicy kick, but was way too sweet. Combined with the heavy, oily batter on the crab, the overwhelming sweetness of the sauce was fatal. I enjoyed the crab much more by just dipping it in the provided soy sauce. (The sweet sauce didn’t bother my partner as much, though--he said he enjoyed the heat of the sauce. So this may be a matter of taste.)

But the tempura soft shell crab ("yawa ragani," as they called it in their dubious Japanese) was the better of the two appetizers we ordered. The "tuna tataki" was rather pathetic. The "thinly sliced seared tuna" had a curiously uniform seared crust--uniform in thickness and uniform in color (no mouthwatering grill marks here). When I noticed that all the four corners were strangely round, I couldn't help suspecting that these tuna slices had been already processed when they arrived at the back of the restaurant. (This is just a guess. If the tuna was indeed seared at the premises, though, they didn't do a great job anyway.)

To make matters worse, there was peculiar sogginess to the tuna, as if it had been frozen and thawed without care. The sogginess had completely destroyed the texture of the tuna, which was quite mushy. When all the tuna pieces were gone, we found a little pool of transparent liquid left on the plate, which is where all the tuna flavor must have seeped out to, because I didn't taste the tuna all that much. This might be due to the miso mustard dipping sauce, which was pretty good by itself. Probably a slight modification of what the Japanese call "sumiso" (usually a mixture of vinegar, miso, Japanese mustard and occasional fish stock), the dipping sauce had a nice, complex flavor, but the strong flavor pretty much obliterated what little flavor that might have been left in the tuna. (This might have been a good thing, come to think of it.)

Granted, their spicy tuna roll was quite tasty. The spicy sauce actually had the slight green taste of the chili peppers, instead of the nondescript heat of most spicy tuna rolls elsewhere. The service was very friendly and unintrusive. The salmon "zuke" special (lightly seared salmon with light dipping sauce) was pretty good as well, although the salmon itself was a bit too fatty for my taste. I would even say that the little seaweed salad that came with the dubious tuna was good. (Definitely better than the main attraction on that plate.) But the awful tuna appetizer was more than enough to make me decide not to go back there. If you must go there, for whatever reason, my advice is to get the maki (rolls), which involves less raw fish (i.e., less risk of mushy tuna) and seems to have the better bang for the buck. Many of the Chicago Reader’s restaurant raters apparently thinks that Sushi Wabi “serves the best sushi in Chicago,” but they certainly did not when we were there.

 

Taylor / June 16, 2007 4:52 PM

I too thought Sushi Wabi is extremely overrated. I used to order from them fairly often when I had to work Sundays in the Loop, and almost every time I found them to be overpriced for poor quality sushi. I eventually stopped bothering to order any sashimi or nigiri from them and stuck with their maki which are generally decent. I was happy when a better place opened down the street from my office.

Anyway, Sushi Wabi is weak and I wouldn't ever recommend it to anyone. I'll stick with my semi-secret favorite sushi dive that I swear is the best in the city. ;)

alan / June 18, 2007 5:27 PM

personally, i don't trust any sushi restaurant that pre slices their fish, which honestly is most of them in chi. walk into wabi. everything is already sliced in great quantities. also, and i mean this in kindest way, i get nevrous when i don't see any asians preparing your food. if i do end up there (and i reluctantly did just last wk) i play it safe and stick to kitchen food. grilled kama (yellowtail collar) or grilled asparagus. all and all, underwhelming if you know good fish. and if you don't, you may make the same insane statement that it's the best in chi. you need to consider the source.

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