Wasabi Sushi Bar & Grill is under new management, and the restaurant wants everyone to know about it. Huge banners adorn the windows, and the staff brims with obvious excitement when they discuss how things have been at the eatery in the past month since reopening. There's fresh blood in the kitchen, and the whole atmosphere of the place has changed. Wasabi has something to prove to the people of Little Rock, and after having lunch and dinner there last week, we think it is well on the way to doing it.
We always treat these changes as a chance for a fresh start with a restaurant, and Wasabi certainly needed one. Food quality had noticeably declined in recent years, leading us to avoid the place for lunch despite its nearness to the Arkansas Times' offices. But that's enough said about the past, because we're happy to report that the food coming out of the sushi bar and hibachi grill is among the best we've recently tried, not only placing Wasabi back on our rotation of lunch spots, but vaulting it right toward the top.
The new attitude was apparent from the moment we entered the dining room, as servers greeted us warmly. Menus were produced, and our server was more than eager to show us the appetizers, sushi items and hot food sections, all while a couple of enthusiastic sushi chefs kept up a witty banter with customers at the bar as they turned fish and rice into some of the prettiest rolls we've seen.
Being on a schedule, we opted for two light options for our lunch, the Sushi Sampler ($8) and the Chicken Hibachi lunch special ($7). The menu describes the sampler as a "chef's choice" of six pieces of nigiri sushi, and while our selection of red snapper, salmon, and ruby-red tuna weren't bold choices by any stretch of the imagination, the fish was luscious and fresh, with a clean, mild taste and buttery texture. The light flavor of the rice was a delightful change from the overly-sweet rice mixtures we've found all too often in Little Rock.
When our hibachi dinner hit the table, we were pleasantly surprised to see that our seven bucks had scored us quite a large portion. A side salad of mostly iceberg lettuce could have used a little diversity in the greens, but the thick ginger dressing it was served with was simply delicious. The hibachi plate itself came with the standard grilled chicken and rice, and both were flavorful, but it was the vegetable portion of the dish that really won us over. Red bell peppers, thin-sliced zucchini, sweet onions and perfectly cooked broccoli were all redolent of a well-seasoned grill, and each bite maintained a delightful crunch that walked the line between "fresh" and "cooked" with style. We came into that lunch skeptical and left as full, happy true believers.
A return trip for dinner found the staff just as eager and welcoming as it had been for lunch. Deciding to put the place through its paces, we ordered two of the specialty sushi rolls, the Ichiro Roll ($13.50), a combination of tempura shrimp and crab topped with yellow tail tuna, salmon and spicy tuna. It was a flavor explosion, but each of the elements of the roll worked well together, and we were impressed by the balance of fresh fish with heavier elements like the battered shrimp. Our second roll, the Big Dam Bridge ($13.50), was an amusing deep-fried roll presented to look like Little Rock's famous pedestrian bridge. We didn't like this roll as much as the Ichiro, but that has more to do with our tastes than the quality — fans of cream cheese-based rolls will find a lot to love here, and we were very pleased with the spicy crawfish stuffed all throughout the Big Dam.
Having sated ourselves with sushi, we turned our attentions to a plate of Chicken Yakisoba ($10) and fell in love all over again. The tender, firm noodles were compellingly seasoned with a spice mixture that we couldn't quite place — it was at times savory, but hints of something sweeter came through here and there and really made the noodles sing. The chicken mixed with the yakisoba was a touch dry, but the flavor was such that we were gladly willing to give that a pass. The addition of an order of spring rolls ($3 for 3 rolls) added a nice bit of fresh crunch to the proceedings, although we would have enjoyed a bit more cabbage inside them. Still, there's something to be said for a meal where even the weak parts were still tasty.
We have found ourselves at numerous new and relaunched restaurants over the years, and we have to say that Wasabi's new look and feel is among one of the best we've had the privilege to experience. Service was friendly, the kitchen was efficient and the chefs obviously know their craft and menu very well. Being big advocates for getting folks from around the city spending time in our thriving downtown, it thrills us when a place steps up its game to provide such stellar fare. If you haven't given Wasabi a try, or if it's been awhile since you've been in, there's no better time to go see the changes for yourself.
Wasabi Sushi Bar & Grill
101 Main St.
With hibachi and fried rice dishes coming in at well under $10, the Wasabi lunch menu is a fantastic deal for a quick, tasty lunch for either dine-in or carry-out.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to10 p.m. Friday through Saturday.
Full bar, all credit cards.