At Dancing Wasabi, owner/sushi chef Charlie Choi brings the heat — from his Kimchi Soup to his long list of special sushi rolls, many of which contain a powerful punch of the hot stuff — even when not described that way.
Perched along Mount Lookout Square, Dancing Wasabi is a small, tightly packed room with black ceilings, dim lighting and a long, bustling sushi bar. The walls are painted with overlapping rectangles of shiny bronze, silver and gold, an eclectic soundtrack fills the air and servers are decked out in their best Soho Johnny Cash.
Yet the cool, contemporary feel is marred by a haphazard jumble of Gladware disposable plastic tubs in display cases along the bar, an odd mish-mash of framed artwork randomly hung on those gold-leafed walls and service that's so casual it can border on indifference.
For example, we requested plates to share our sushi, which our waiter clearly forgot. They eventually arrived after we asked again and the sushi was gone. We later had to ask twice to get dessert — and our check. But maybe I'm being picky. By the time we left, the place was mobbed: Perhaps occasional service lapses and incoherent décor aren't a big deal. Most seem to come here for the very good food — especially the excellent sushi — and the lively scene.
Mr. Choi, formerly of Hyde Park's Sake Bomb, has many devotees. In fact, dozens of "kisses" — bright red lip prints — from admirers are mounted on the wall as testament to his popularity. A fan at the next table breathlessly pointed him out to her friends, calling and waving, as if desperate to be noticed by a reclusive Pop star, "There he is! Charlie! Hi, Charlie!" (If I had been her date, I would have been miffed.)
We started with edamame ($5), seaweed salad ($6), Agedashi tofu ($5) and that aforementioned Kimchi Soup ($6). The soybean pods were salty and hot. While the salad dressing was delicious (though heavier than I'm used to with this dish), I didn't think the addition of several chunks of "crab" stick added much; shredded jicama did, however, provide a complementary sweetness and crunch to the briny seaweed. The tofu was terrific with its crispy coating yet silky interior. It came with sweet/salty ponzu-soy dipping sauce. And the soup was great — filled with cabbage, tofu, and beef — and liberally seasoned with spicy chili oil.
While we saw lots of people drinking Riesling ($6) and oversized cans of Asahi Japanese beer ($7), we enjoyed the Tozai "Snow Maiden" Sake ($17 per 300 ml). Our waiter twisted off the cap, charmingly insisting that I ceremoniously lift my glass for him to pour. Deliciously milky and rich, it reminded me of a piña colada. Then, as he left, he deliberately placed the screw cap before me, just in case I wanted to examine the trash more closely.
Moving on to sushi, Mr. Choi's specialty, we sampled three artfully presented and delicious rolls. An impressive twin-tailed Dragon Roll ($10.50) snaked through the middle, topped with barbecued eel and avocado and filled with tempura shrimp and crabstick. The Sunday Morning Roll ($6.50) was sliced on an angle, containing salmon and cream cheese and, though not referenced in the printed description, garnished with a hot, fruity, peppery Thai Sriracha sauce that rendered it inedible to my daughter's sensitive tongue. A Fire Scallop Roll ($11.50) rounded out the plate, packed with spicy crab, cooling cucumber, torched scallops and topped with bonito (freeze-dried tuna) flakes.
We also tried Doi Sot Bi Bim Bap ($18), a Korean hot pot consisting of white rice, vegetables, beef and a fried egg. Served in a heated stone bowl, it was finished tableside with gochujang hot sauce. As our waiter mixed the ingredients, he pointed out the (Japanese) Royal Fern, which he informed us has "oyster-like properties." We must have looked perplexed because he added, "It's an aphrodisiac." It certainly tasted great, especially the crunchy sesame rice baked against the bottom of the bowl.
Ton Katsu ($18), described as a "fusion entrée," was a large pork cutlet, pounded thin and deep fried, topped with katsu sauce and served with crunchy fresh vegetables and sliced fruit. It was delicious and beautifully presented — except for the odd addition of what appeared to be a tablespoon of Veg-All® as garnish.
For dessert, we "shared" a fried vanilla ice cream ($6). I managed to scrape up a single spoonful before my kids obliterated the dish, so I can only assume it was good.
Overall, Dancing Wasabi creates and maintains a big-city ambience for its enthusiastic crowds. It's a great place to enjoy reasonably priced, inventive sushi before, during or after a night of partying. If you hope, instead, for a zen-like, seamless dining experience, try going early, relax and expect Mr. Choi to bring the heat. ©
Go: 1018 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-4 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Payment: Major credit cards accepted
Red Meat Alternatives: Sushi, tofu, seafood, vegetarian, chicken and more
Accessibility: Crowded, but accessible; parking on street can be a challenge