Sarah had been my house and kitty sitter during a recent extended vacation, so I invited her to dine with me in appreciation at Mr Wasabi on upper Union Street in Schenectady.
Situated in a small row of businesses, the establishment is compact, with a sign overhead that is difficult to see at night.
“There it is,” Sarah pointed out. Performing a naughty U-turn, I pulled around and slid into a slanted parking space right in front of the unassuming-looking restaurant.
Inside, the space is narrow: a cluster of tables behind a half wall to the left, booths along the right wall, sushi bar with six seats and open kitchen with three chefs to the left.
WHERE: 1671 Union St., Schenectady. 388-9222, www.mrwasabi.net
WHEN: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-10:30 p.m, Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $60.75 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Accessible, street parking, all major credit cards accepted, noise level and music permit conversation, free delivery with $15 minimum order within a 3-mile radius
I love kitchens open to the diners. Food preparation fascinates me, whether for a dinner party at home for two people or for a crowd of hungry diners. The kitchen for Mr Wasabi fit somewhere in the middle.
From my vantage point in a booth, the action in the exposed kitchen was almost ballet-like — quiet, graceful, coordinated. The complete opposite of a hot kitchen with which I was once associated where every other word turned the air blue, a handful of forks became a bouquet of weapons and Flying Plastic nights were the rule.
Sole server Miya seated us and handed us menus listing 18 categories, not counting luncheon: soups, salads, appetizers, rolls, sushi, sashimi, tempura, udon.
Owner Jackie Chen greeted us, recognizing me only as a fan of his temporarily closed Ninja Restaurant in downtown Schenectady.
I tend to be on the conservative end of the “thrill” spectrum when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Tempura, teriyaki, California rolls are my choices. But a much younger and adventuresome Sarah asked Jackie for some suggestions on more “risky” dishes, and he smilingly obliged.
To start her off, he prepared a lovely appetizer of four small triangular-shaped pieces of tempura battered and fried white fish. They were artistically stacked atop 3-inch segments of thin asparagus sliced in half lengthwise. The oversized oval dish was decorated with dots and swirls of sauces of colors that complemented each other and the fish.
A green pesto-like sauce was streaked across the white plate. Sarah suggested it tasted like my house. She explained that my home is filled with green plants and that was how it tasted. Green.
My Spider Roll ($11) appetizer was a modern painting of brown swirls and green and orange dots tying together eight pieces of soft-shell crab wrapped in rice. The dish was accompanied by seafood sauce and ginger sauce. Consuming the work of art was as satisfying as looking at it.
Sarah’s entrée consisted of three different kinds of rolls — Shrimp Tempura ($7), California ($5) and Spicy Crunch Shrimp ($6). With a total of 20 pieces of rolls on her plate, Sarah was able to sample each but took home a large boxful for her family. She was visibly charmed by her “risky” selection of rolls on a plate decorated with green wasabi, pale yellow ginger, a purple dendrobium orchid and swirls and dots of three different sauces.
I’ve mentioned before in reviews that when I visit a restaurant for the first time, I often order a sampler if it is available — to get the lay of the land, so to speak.
The Hibachi Combination ($25), again in a lovely presentation, included miso soup or salad (I chose the salad) with two small shrimp, carrots, onions, red and green peppers, and my choice of meat (or more vegetables). I chose the lobster tail and one-inch cubes of tender steak cooked to my requested medium rare.
I could also have had chicken, salmon, scallops or shrimp. White or fried rice accompanied the meal (I chose fried). Both meat and vegetables were perfectly seasoned and sauces were unnecessary. Even with Sarah helping me, some of the beef and vegetables were boxed for me to take home.
The atmosphere in Mr Wasabi was serene. I noted a television set on mute at the far end of the room, and Sarah informed me that the soft music in the background was from the 2010-2013 era. I did not question how she knew. “Music changes the atmosphere,” remarked my young dining companion. Ah, yes, I thought. A little mainstream jazz would have been nice.
Wasabi or Japanese horseradish is not a root but a stem and grows along streams in Japan. It stimulates not the tongue but the nasal passages. Because of its high cost, true wasabi is generally found only in high-end restaurants. A lower cost combination of mustard, horseradish, starch and green food coloring is often used as a substitute.