4741 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
Wasabi Fusion Cuisine
903 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
Mt. Fuji Sushi & Hibachi Restaurant
7904 Main St. N., Maple Grove
I wrote many years ago that the Twin Cities could stand another dozen sushi restaurants—and while I did write that, I can't say I took the time to really think it through.
Did I imagine that all these new places would have sushi like gossamer rose petals drifting table-ward from magical clouds of ocean mist? Not really, I was just looking at the local terrain, and seeing that there were a lot of people of a certain income level who did not have sushi spots close at hand. A vacuum, if you will. A series of underpopulated niches. Now I find myself having spent a month eating in nothing but underpopulated niches, and, in a word, I say: Our many new sushi spots are fine. They're just fine.
The fish is good enough. The lunch specials are priced right. The servers are on the ball. The restaurant spaces are pleasant to while away a few hours in. Let me tell you, my bosses love it when I rack up fat bills at new restaurants and then report on them in the manner of a sullen teen: How was your day? Fine. What do you mean, fine? "I mean fine, okay! Fine! Fine! I didn't ask to be born!" (Door slams offscreen and soon the sound of sobbing is heard, followed by the muffled rage of Korn. Then the anguished tap-tapping of internet shopping.)
Ahem. Ba-Gu and Wasabi, the newest Minneapolis sushi spots, are certainly the pick of the litter. Both offer sushi that's good, fresh, and just made, but otherwise unspectacular. I suspect this is the only option they have, as Anemoni, Minneapolis's last big sushi restaurant to open, seems to have proved that scouring the country for the best available sushi chef, installing top-dollar infrastructure, spending to the hilt for the most costly ingredients, and then passing those costs on to the diner guarantees nothing so much as a great restaurant for holding spontaneous yodeling contests, playing frisbee golf, herding goats, or doing other such things that might disturb diners, as there aren't any.
Ba-Gu, situated in a pretty Tudor neighborhood just north of Minnehaha Creek, is a stylish, serene jewelbox of a restaurant with modern steel art on the walls and chairs upholstered in silky ruby, amethyst, and coral fabrics. Ba-Gu offers everything you'd want in a neighborhood Japanese restaurant and sushi bar: It has all the appropriate nigiri pieces (those slices of fish or similar things laid across a finger of rice), all the crisp and light tempura things, all the light salads, and Japanese comfort foods like chicken katsu.
More unusually, Ba-Gu also has kids' meals (such as a dinner of two chicken yakitori skewers with soup and rice for $5.50) and a number of sushi rolls that are not merely unusual, but truly baroque. The Sunrise ($12.95) was my favorite. For it, the chefs wrap rice stuffed with seared tuna, fresh grated ginger, and shiso leaves with paper-thin slices of still slightly green mango—the tart mango and anise-like shiso seem to generate an almost electric energy when paired. Also good was the Salmon Fever ($13.95), in which grilled salmon skin, raw salmon, smoked salmon, and salty salmon roe unite for an explosion of four-way salmon action. The Four Seasons Roll ($12.95) offers a fairly staid combination of tuna, avocado, and cucumber made as gaudy and cheerful as a Holidazzle float with four colors of flying-fish roe. All the other sushi and sashimi I had at Ba-Gu was good enough, but not good enough to go on and on about.
I tried a number of the restaurant's less Japanese dishes as well, wondering if I'd find its true heart, but what I found was a sub-par pad thai made with overcooked shrimp ($13.75) and a surprisingly good masaman curry ($13.75) made with a silky, hauntingly spicy, and complex sauce. If I lived in the neighborhood, I imagine I'd be in Ba-Gu weekly; it shines especially as a lunch destination, and should be incredibly popular with the many architects and designers who live in that green and tidy area and office at home. Another benefit that Ba-Gu offers to neighbors is high-style takeout: One night when I ate there, I saw a large sushi and kids' meal order delivered into the hands of a frantic dad who dashed in, his credit card aloft and extended before him like a baton in a relay race. Moms, dads, architects, homeowners, and empty-nesters in the verdant lands by the creek, lend me your ears: Your sushi has arrived!
Meanwhile, downtown, others party hard, or dine quickly during business hours, and prefer to do so on a budget. For them, Wasabi Fusion Cuisine just opened on Washington between the Metrodome and the new Guthrie. Wasabi has lots of free parking in its big lot, and is enclosed within a beautiful, temple-like space of soaring ceilings and sturdy 19th-century rafters. I don't know why the "fusion cuisine" is in Wasabi's name, unless it refers to fusing Americans to the greatest hits of Japanese restaurants—I didn't find any Latin, Kenyan, Yugoslavian, or whatever cross-cultural notes that phrase is supposed to connote. I did find a lot of perfectly stand-up Japanese food: The noodles were hot, the sushi was the common level of fresh, the beer was cold. The two things that distinguish Wasabi are, like Ba-Gu, some crazy, crazy rolls, and the crazy low prices. At either lunch or dinner, a big platter of sushi for two people costs $31; a big party platter for four or more runs $60. At lunch, you can buy three big sushi rolls for $9.50; meals at the playful open-grill teppanyaki tables manned by chefs with clattering knives are priced to move (ha ha!). A teppanyaki chicken and shrimp meal costs $11 at lunch or $18.50 at dinner and comes with soup, salad, and noodles.
What else? Vegetarians will find many options, lunch service is speedy, and at night party drinks flow like, um, party drinks: According to my server, the house version of a Long Island Iced Tea, the Tokyo Tea ($7.50), is the most popular. So: Planning a sushi birthday party? Want to pay less than you usually do? Wasabi! While you're there, be sure to plunk down an extra $1.50 for the best tamago I've had in town since the first great incarnation of long-gone Katsu Sushi. Here the layered omelet was made with only a hint of sugar and lightened somehow until it had a spry, almost evanescent taste. It was served cut into a pretty envelope to hold a pad of rice, instead of the unimaginative way we usually see it, and it was so beautifully done that it made all the other good enough but not great things I tried from Wasabi much more curious: Only a talented and deeply experienced chef could have pulled that off, and I'll be back one day to see if that person is doing more.
Other than that tamago, the best things I had at Wasabi were the crazy rolls—though not the Crazy Roll ($12), which is essentially a finny chimichanga and is notable mainly for turning something as plain and healthy as rice and fish into something to make a cardiologist weep. The best of the crazy rolls was a house special Snowman Roll with tuna and yellowtail wrapped in rice and then enrobed with buttery slices of the snow-white, tuna-like fish escolar. (Escolar has some indigestible oils in it, so eating a lot of it isn't recommended, but in small amounts it's creamy and lush.) In conclusion: Downtown office workers, party people, attend! Wasabi: You have nothing to lose but your enslavement to pricier sushi spots.
Once I sensed that this column was gaining a common thread of crazy rolls, I packed up for the long, lonely drive to Maple Grove to visit Mt. Fuji. If you've never heard of Mt. Fuji, and I know you haven't, please know it's located in one of those eerie-looking faux Main Streets in the farthest suburbs, and it has sushi rolls so odd, so unique, so jaw-dropping that they should be shown in museums as outsider art.
The Pink Leopard ($9.95), for instance, is a chopped salad of crab meat and avocado wrapped not with seaweed nori but with flesh-pink soybean paper—it looks like one of those tortilla wraps that were so popular at inexpensively catered affairs a few years ago, as rendered by John Waters for a lewd film close-up. It tastes like crab salad. The Host Roll ($15.95), which is named, I'm guessing, for the Japanese boys who dress up nicely and loiter about in big Japanese cities waiting for wealthy ladies to buy them expensive meals, has a full soft-shell crab inside and grilled eel and tuna outside; it's as big as an aquarium. The Spring Roll ($11.95) arrives wearing a Muppet-like bright-green wig of chopped seaweed salad; inside is a raw scallop cloaked with spice, cucumber, and, as the menu put it, "crunch." "What's wrong with you?" asked my lunch date, as the weird and weirder rolls stacked up around the table. The Winter Roll ($6.95) at Mt. Fuji is another deep-fried chimichanga, this one festooned with clumps of red tobiko, the crisp flying-fish roe adding a peculiar note to the deep-fried crevasses and spires of the tempura-batter exterior. Then I ran out of steam and didn't try Monkey Mountain or Deep Impact, because the joke suddenly stopped being funny about halfway through the Fuji River ($12.95), when the crawfish—yes, crawfish—within didn't seem all that fresh. "What is happening?" gasped my lunch date, pushing away his plate. "I mean, really, what is going on here?"
Evolution, mostly. Just as species stranded on the Galapagos will diverge and evolve to fill every possible ecological niche, so it is with our Minnesota and our Japanese and sushi restaurants. Welcome to the new era of diversity: We live not just with old, reliable elms, but now also with gazelles, ferns, and flightless birds!
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