Wasabi Japanese – Hotter than Hot

Interviewed by Jun Wang Written by Elise Krentzel

Everyone knows that the Japanese mustard plant 'wasabi' is hot. When ingested alone, it can burn right through your nostrils making for a very sore passageway, stinging burning eyes and hot flushed cheeks. Of course, no one would willingly just scoop a teaspoon of wasabi in their mouths unless they were entering some kind of wasabi eating contest.

There's no contest here at Wasabi Japanese Restaurant because they are the winners in their category in Orange, Connecticut. Here the New Haven Register, The New York Times and the locals have voted them #Number 1. In the highly regarded Zagat's Guide, they've been voted by customers to be one of the best Japanese restaurants in America for two years in a row, 2008 and 2009.

Since 2005, couple owners Grace and Tom Ke have created an ambience inside their Japanese eatery that has many Asian touches. For instance, the tables are shiny red mahogany outlined with a strip of black around the outer rim and black wooden chairs. The room divider separating the sushi bar from the tables is a wooden structure with brass poles that brings traditional sense to the room.The wall hangings and the small knick knacks ; the cotton band of navy blue material with Japanese writing that hangs above the sushi bar welcomes guests. A Neko cat encourages customers to enter, thereby bringing good fortune to the business.Bamboo roll-up shades enhance the oriental atmosphere.

Sushi Yay!

Sushi and sashimi are the attraction that customers come to cheer about are reasonably priced between $1.75 to $2.50 per order , even for the more exotic items. Everything from tuna, salmon, yellowtail, white fish, mackerel ,squid are available. An online customer review says it all. “I've lived in San Diego for 8 years where seafood and sushi are like McDonald's. Wasabi's sushi is prepared and tastes as good as my favorite places in San Diego…I always get a couple of rolls and a handful of sushi. The yellowtail melts in your mouth. All of the fish is very fresh. I've been there 6-10 times in the past few months and love the food.”

Sauce in Japanese cuisine is subtle, when used . The owner understands this and uses it sparingly; soy, yuzu, sesame or ponzu can be used to create innovative flavorings. Soy being the main sauce in all of Japanese cooking other ingredients that are mainstays include mirin, rice wine, sugar and ginger. These flavors are used in a great variety of sauces for soup bases and coatings for fish and meat.

From Mind to Mouth

Grace Ke is often inspired by her visits to trendy Manhattan restaurants where she can eat her way to oblivion. In a city that boasts more Michelin starred eateries than in Paris, there's no shortage of excellent chefs, styles and nuanced bursts of creativity. Either high end or low brow, there is a taste for all seasons, whims and palates. Like a roving food reporter, she writes her ideas down in a little pad to remember the places she visited, the special food she ate and the atmosphere.

Some of Wasabi's inventive turns include Aji. With careful cutting precision like petals and a lightly flavored ponzu sauce, the sushi chef creates a blossoming flower. Sometimes,the head of the Aji is then fried with peppers and splashed with lemon juice. The crispy, tangy combination ,together with the silkiness of the sashimi , is a triple play. Another signature dish is Mango salad. Sliced ripe pieces of mango are tossed lightly with cucumber, crab meat and seaweed salad in a Martini glass, to making an attractive appetizer .

Every three months new appetizers and sushi rolls are introduced to keep the locals amused and curious. Sometimes cooking styles can be differentiated upon a customer's suggestion,but never to compromise quality, presentation and authenticity.

Quality Counts

When dealing with raw food, especially fish, it is critical that the quality of the fish is topnotch. At Wasabi,Tom Ke is fully in control of all ingredients purchased from the distribution company. He checks all goods signaling his approval or disapproval.

Quality control includes a clean environment and super clean kitchen. The cooking utensils, sushi bar, kitchen and dining areas are kept immaculate.

Building Confidence

ARN wasn't sure if Grace was being modest or just straightforward when she said, “Bringing in traffic and building customer loyalty is hard work and not so easy. I have always known that operating a restaurant is difficult. When we began we had to ask customers to come in and try us and they were reluctant to do so. Yet through time we succeeded in convincing customers of our quality and good service.”

She thinks about, “Management; I know it involves every aspect from quality control, staff management, marketing strategy to financial management. My knowledge about this is limited and so I keep on learning, in the hopes of bettering the business.”

Grace furnished ARN with three key points to differentiate her business from others:

1. Innovative & health driven ideas
2. Dedication to details: fresh ingredients, clean environment, memorable meals
3. Accommodating service: amicable relations with customers, knowing their preferences and being ready to serve,and treating them like family.

As to the owner, she has bestowed upon the restaurant her heart and soul with the intent of making their operation a long running establishment. Even with these currently tough times she says, “We are doing fine ”, adding that “we adjust to the times whatever that may bring.”Whatever is required , Grace will be sure to make a go of it.Grace also say thanks to all of her supporter especially Bob and Bunny.!