A moving experience with sushi at Wasabi
It takes a while to make sense of what’s going on at the four-month-old Wasabi. Most of the standard restaurant conventions - ordering, pricing, courses, menus - have been turned upside-down in a space with no walls and few right angles. Snaking through the dining area, a divided stainless steel conveyor belt curves like a surreal bi-directional river. Along its banks, diners in plush booths are encouraged to grab brightly patterned plates of sushi that float along on 300 elevated white discs.
There’s seating for 100 here, in a bright expanse in the upscale Natick Mall. A grove of faux-willow trees rustle in a ventilator breeze, while shoppers stroll by with curious glances at the robo-restaurant.
The Natick location is the company’s third and largest. Soon to come: South Shore Plaza in Braintree, and five new outposts in Los Angeles. None will match Natick in size.
The fish served at Wasabi is, in general, as fresh and flavorful as you can find at any lower-cost sushi bar. The variable becomes the skill of the sushi chef, and at Wasabi, it is indeed variable.
On some nights, sushi is correctly cut with respect to the grain of the fish, and maki rolls are pleasantly precise. With luck you will arrive on such a night. At other times, maki rolls are comically misshapen; sashimi chopped to a grisly fare-thee-well. The skills of the chef-on-duty seem to vary dramatically.
Through it all, the simplest salmon ($3.50), tuna ($4), and flounder ($4) nigiri - just a slab of fish on a pad of rice - are consistently excellent. These three fish are shipped fresh to the restaurant. Other varieties arrive flash-frozen, but these can also shine in simple preparations. Among them, escolar (called “white tuna’’ here, $4) and Japanese yellowtail ($4).
The five varieties of melamine plates you can grab off the conveyor are color-coded according to price, from $2.50 to $5. When you’re done, stack the plates, and pay at the end. In Japan, such kaiten-zushi restaurants are often regarded as tacky, even unseemly. Abroad we can have fun. In California, elaborate boats bring the plates to you in a water-filled canal. In Australia scale trains chug by. In England, it’s little double-decker buses.
Wasabi’s tobiko sushi (flying fish roe, rice, and nori seaweed, $5) features a generous swath of tiny ruby-red roe spheres that pop in your mouth, on a pad of rice encircled with a sheet of green nori. The taste is savory, saline, and quite mild. It’s a lot of fun to eat and pretty on the plate. Probably why kids (and there are many here) go for it.
The restaurant also makes nontraditional complex rolls. Most are too ambitious, hiding quality fish in a miasma of crunch, spice, and distraction. A signature spicy red mayo makes an appearance in many, as, say, lava atop the “eel sauce’’ California volcano ($4) or glue in an otherwise wonderful shrimp tempura roll ($5). As the rolls get more complex, more skill is required in the kitchen.
Yes, sushi cognoscenti might deride the malformed rolls, or the fact that the rice is not proper sushi rice - traditionally vinegared, seasoned, and sticky. But intentionally or not, Wasabi is an effective evangelist for the simple fish itself. It’s a powerful and delicious lesson for children (and some adults) whose fish typically comes as sticks.
The machinery at Wasabi is in high gear at the Christmas season. Saturdays, some 4,000 plates fly off the belt. The show is half the fun.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.