Japanese Creations with an Original Touch

Patricia Brooks
New York Times
August 12th, 2006

The menu at Wasabi Chi in South Norwalk is a refreshing change from the cloned selections found in
so many Japanese restaurants in Connecticut.

The chef and owner, Doug Chi Nguyen, escaped by boat from his native Vietnam at age 12 and eventually ended up in Rockland County, N.Y., sponsored by an Italian-American family. A long apprenticeship in Japanese restaurants led to his first Wasabi in Nyack, and now this one, where he has cre ated a kind of New Japanese cuisine, combining traditional recipes with European techniques and ingredients. The results can be spectacular in sushi rolls and in Oma kase Creations (which translates more or less as chef’s choices) and Small Plates, (some not so small).

Four of us had an exciting evening mixing a variety of dishes in these last two catego ries, adding a few sushi rolls as well. If you follow an omakase dish (priced mostly from • $14-$17) with a small plate ($11-$17), you will have a full meal at a cost just a bit more than one regular entree — along with the fun of unexpected discoveries.

Standout dishes were the crunchy panko- crusted Pacific oysters (big, juicy and flavorful) in a creamy wasabi sauce with a mix of fresh greens; baked sea scallops (sizzling hot, tickled by a chili-mushroom sauce) with lemony greens; crispy wasabi calamari with a spicy hoisin sauce and black cod (light and flaky), baked in a sake- infused miso sauce. Ceviche (tuna, salmon, yellowtail and striped bass jostled with rice vinegar, gin and citrusy yuzu) was served artfully in a martini glass.

The prize for originality went to tuna pizza: sushi tuna with chopped onion and tomato spread over crisp, flaky, lightly browned phyllo dough. My favorite dish, though, was soba — thin, incredibly succulent buckwheat noodles and crispy striped bass tempura with plum sauce — a wonderful blend of flavor and texture contrasts.

That first evening was so successful I could hardly wait to return. But after two weeks, the restaurant seemed slightly different. Certain small plates and omakase were very good. Lobster martini — wonder fully tender lobster chunks with bean sprouts, avocado and black tobiko (caviar) — arrived with flourishes in a martini glass.

Crispy yellowtail cheeks — a large hunk of unadorned fish — could have used a decorative touch, but the taste, enhanced by ponzu sauce, was heavenly. Several dishes, howev er, were letdowns : the sashimi risotto only half worked (the buckwheat rice, though not a real risotto, had zing, but the sashimi tuna seemed dry) and the tuna carpaccio, sliced too thick, was rather bland.

Entrees were also mixed. Pan-seared duck in a sweet chili sauce (with bok choy, deep-fried yam slices and mashed potatoes) was tender and pleasing. But Kobe steak, with the same sides, was overly chewy and lacked the flavor of what should be (at $55) top-quality beef.

The wasabi sushi “love boat for two,” at $65, roused high expectations, but the fish selection (tuna, salmon, yellowtail and fluke) was banal and the soft- shell crab in one of the rolls tasted reheated.

For sushi, it is better to choose among many creative inside-outside rolls, like Caterpillar (avocado outside, eel inside), Rainbow (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, fluke, shrimp and avocado outside, crab and tobiko inside) or Kamikaze (tobiko outside, tuna, salmon, avocado and spicy sauce inside). For dessert, we shared a $20 “chef’s tasting” — four desserts, including green tea mascarpone cheesecake and chocolate truffle cake — but I preferred the refreshing mango sorbet. At Wasabi Chi, it became clear, ordering selectively was the key to an inspired meal.


THE SPACE Black and white decor dominates the
main dining room; a larger dining room on the
right is a study in black and red. The first room
is wheelchair accessible, but there are several
steps up to the second room and the restrooms.

THE CROWD A mix of age groups at dinner, but
few children; lunch sometimes brings families.
Servers, all in black, are cordial, helpful and pro-
fessional. Expect loud music and matching deci-
bel levels — slightly quieter in the second room.

Lively, with a good selection of drinks
(10 martinis), aperitifs, nine sakes (from $12 to
$28) and a few Asian beers. The wine list is short
but intelligently chosen, with bottles from $30 to
$280; by the glass, $7 to $12.

Lunch entrees, $13 to $15 ; Dinner en-
trees, $20 to $25, but Kobe steak, $55.

Shrimp tempura, ceviche,
wakame salad, lobster martini, baked sea scal-
lops, black cod, Pacific oysters, soba, yellowtail
cheeks, many sushi rolls, wasabi calamari, pan-
seared duck, mango sorbet.

Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30
p.m. Dinner, Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 10p.m.;
Friday and Saturday, till 11p.m. Parking on
Washington Street; public lot a half block away,
on Haviland Street.