Wasabi Sushi & Sake Bar is tucked into the sprawling Cordova Towne Center that's home to Malco movie theater. The owners are Tony Leong and Johnny Lum, who had worked in sushi restaurants in New York before moving to Memphis. They bought out Hawaiian BBQ, the restaurant that had been in that location, earlier in the year, and operated it as such for a while. Then they returned to their culinary roots, converting it into a sushi bar, redecorating, and reopening in August. Leong is the manager, and Lum is the sushi chef.
The decor is cheerful and hip, painted in dark pink and terracotta colors with couches in the front, jazzy light fixtures, and a partially open ceiling with curvy areas of sky blue lowered ceiling. A row of booths made from stained plywood seem out of sync with the rest of the place.
What's best about the atmosphere has to do with the ear rather than the eye. That's the absence of the high-tech, edgy/nervous vibe that you sometimes experience in sushi bars, with their fondness for techno music and interrogation-style lighting. Wasabi is instead easy and unpretentious, so much so that the football game is playing on TV behind the sushi chef.
Our first visit was for dinner, and we started by sampling Wasabi specialty rolls on the sushi menu, all of which are named after movies. Ocean 11 was a moderately spicy crawfish-and-mayo roll, topped with white tuna. Castaway consisted of still-warm crunchy-fried soft-shell crab inside and seared red tuna on top. Those were the best of the bunch. Strangely, the more dramatically named Scarface was a mellower combination of crabstick and shrimp tempura and cucumber. Pirates of the Caribbean was refreshing, with crabstick and avocado combo wrapped in thin cucumber slices. Each roll consisted generously of eight pieces, rather than the standard six.
The sushi menu is extensive, and we didn't really check out the conventional rolls, sashimi, and nigiri. My impression is that the sushi chefs know their stuff, so it's fine.
Our venture into the entrée menu was less interesting. We tried the Aloha Hawaiian BBQ beef (a holdover from the former restaurant) with tempura shrimp and vegetables. The thin slices of beef were intensely flavored with teriyaki, but tough. The tempura coating on the shrimp and vegetables was overly shaggy and thick for my taste, and a bit oily. Another entrée, the glazed salmon, was cooked to tender perfection, although the portion was unusually small and the glaze sweet and bland.
The meals were also accompanied by miso or clear soup and head lettuce salad with ginger dressing, all of them well-executed but in line with what you get in most Japanese restaurants. The fried rice was moist and fresh, better than the usual fare, which in many restaurants can be greasy with stale, dry rice grains.
Our second visit, for lunch, confirmed our conclusion that the sushi is much more compelling than the entrée menu. The Lord of the Ring roll was shrimp tempura, apple, and mayo on the inside and slices of avocado attractively arranged on top. Rainman looked like a rainbow, with alternating slices of red tuna, white tuna, and salmon, with crab and cucumber inside.
We also found the appetizers as good as the sushi. We enjoyed the Very Wasabi Shumai, a dumpling with chopped meat in the center and enough wasabi to impart a nice but not unpleasant nose burn. (Shumai without the wasabi is available, too.) The roasted lamb teriyaki was plump and tender, the flavor of the meat melding nicely with the teriyaki. Sautéed calamari was delectable, with a dusting of crisp coating on larger-than-usual calamari tentacles. The yellowtail cheeky (aka the cheek), arrived as the whole side of the fish's face. It had a strong fishy aroma, yet the bites of cheek meat were mild in flavor and meltingly tender.
We sampled some more entrees on this visit, and again they were competent but nothing special. The pork tonkatsu was a well-cooked pork cutlet with pleasant breadcrumb coating, though it was virtually tasteless. The teriyaki beef was standard issue, with tender beef cubes. Grilled tuna with the chef's curry sauce was cooked just fine, but the sauce was bland and uninspired. The huge serving of spicy seafood soup with udon noodles consisted of peppery clear broth with thin egg noodles (the restaurant had run out of the thicker udon noodles) and plenty of seafood and vegetables. If any of the entrees stood out, it was this soup.
The restaurant has a small list of ubiquitous wines. Purists would do well to bring their own bottles. The focal point of the bar is its menu of sakes, including the fruit-flavored version and more traditional selections. Beer and liquor are also available.
Unfortunately, the service was mixed. At dinner, sleeve-tugging was required at every turn, but once we flagged down our server and made a specific request, we got what we wanted pretty quickly. Otherwise, many details were ignored during that busy night. At lunch the restaurant's manager waited on us. Not surprisingly, on that visit the service was on point, with everything arriving and departing on a timely basis and our questions patiently and thoroughly answered.
We found Wasabi to be casual, comfort-able, and refreshingly unpretentious. As for the food, it's worth sticking with appetizers and sushi, especially the rolls with movie names. Our favorite rolls were the Rainman, Ocean's 11, and Castaway, while standout appetizers included roasted lamb teriyaki, sauté style calamari, and the Very Wasabi Shumai dumplings. While none of the entrees were bad or improperly prepared, neither were they very interesting.
Wasabi is an attractive departure from Cordova's many chain restaurants, and while it might not break new culinary ground, it's a pleasant spot to grab a bite before the movie.
Wasabi Sushi & Sake Bar 1134 N. Germantown Pkwy. 754-0567
For more information, check out our Dining Guide