A restaurant’s name can sometimes make it or break it. Who wouldn’t want to dine at the French Laundry? Or Nobu? Such titles imply a style, panache and level of mastery that promise diary-worthy meals with the price tags to match.
In Kansas City, we have a few of those as well. When one says Bluestem or Novel, an expectation of skill is automatic. But what about Bob Wasabi Kitchen? What does it tell you about the knife skills of the chef or the level of freshness of the fish? Nothing. It may seem like a joke, but it isn’t. Bob Wasabi Kitchen’s genius comes out of left field.
Bob Wasabi is the long-time nickname of its owner and head sushi chef, Bob Shin. Shin is Korean but came to the United States nearly 40 years ago. His daughters, Tanya and Esther, run the front of house, greeting each diner as they enter and treating each one as regulars, which many of them have quickly become. On my two visits, many diners were greeted by name, evoking a warm, neighborhood vibe to the small space.
The restaurant, located at 1726 W. 39th St., in the ever-changing 39th Street corridor, takes a spot formerly held by Mia’s Pizza. The décor is simple and clean—shoji screens, bamboo print fabric. There’s not a lucky cat to be seen, and the playlist is contemporary music. Instead of trying to fake being Japanese, they are more focused on delivering authenticity with each bite.
There is a large contingency of diners that believe that sushi of any kind is best experienced within an easy drive of a coast. And indeed, the lure of salty ocean air certainly enhances the mood when thinking about seafood, but really, there are areas of Japan that lack easy access to the sea as well.
Sushi itself refers to rice. In traditional preparations, fish is sliced, placed on rice flavored with vinegar and seasoned with soy and occasionally wasabi. It’s an art form for some. For others it’s a commuter snack. Bob Wasabi has definitely taken the former tack.
Chatting with Esther over lunch one day, she revealed that Shin learned the art of sushi 25 years ago from a master in California, but he had been working with fish for much longer. When he first came to New York, he opened a fish stall, so he was well acquainted with his product. Once he took the dive, pardon the pun, into the world of sushi, he retained the reverence for the fish, and in his own shop has added a bit of his own Korean spin on a few dishes.
The menu at Bob Wasabi Kitchen reveals a curated selection of well-executed staples as well as a few delicacies that you won’t find on other sushi menus in town. He includes a few dishes that he has picked up in his culinary journey, including poké from his most recent outpost outside of Kansas City, Miso Phat in Maui. He uses only bigeye tuna in his poké, tossing it lightly with a seasoned soy sauce, cucumber, sesame seeds, avocado, radish sprouts and spiral cut daikon radish. The dish looks and tastes almost like a deconstructed California roll, with fat chunks of the bigeye tuna taking center stage as opposed to crab, imitation or otherwise.
He includes poké on his limited appetizer list along with edamame, gyoza, squid salad, miso soup and seaweed salad. Also included is a sushi or sashimi sampler, although with only four pieces included in either of them, it seems like that would be a cruel tease.
Indeed, if you are hungry, you need look no further than the specialty roll list. Many of the selections may look familiar such as rainbow rolls, TNT rolls, dragon rolls and more. Another list of more basic nigiri includes a California roll with or without real lump crabmeat, spicy tuna or salmon. Prices are fairly standard for the basics. The specialty roll prices may make some diners do a double take. Trust me, it’s worth it.
In sheer size, the specialty rolls are a good value. Each roll is beautifully displayed with house-made sauces, and each easily contains 10 generously sized pieces. The Hawaiian roll was a favorite of mine. Crispy shrimp tempura was nestled with kani salad and topped with poké.
The TNT roll had what so many ‘spicy’ rolls in Kansas City lack—heat. The large diameter roll featured fresh spicy tuna, hamachi (yellowtail tuna), and the house-prepared salmon, all fried tempura style, and then dotted with spicy aioli. For the faint of heart, the baked hamachi roll was the perfect starter roll—a baked California roll wrapped in hamachi with a small scallop on top. With a smattering of tobiko, bonito flakes and scallions, this roll was, dare I say, comforting—not the adjective normally applied to raw fish.
For the more adventurous, Bob Wasabi is focused on bringing more authentic and unusual delicacies to midtown. The standout is the inclusion of mirugai or geoduck. Although native to the Pacific Northwest’s coastal waters, it is in high demand in China. This salt-water clam may set some diners giggling—it does look a bit obscene with its neck extending a foot or more outside of its shell—but those that try it will be pleasantly surprised.
Miragai most closely resembles a firm scallop in texture and flavor. There is a distinctive crunch when first bitten into, similar to when one eats sashimi octopus. After that initial bite though, a sweet, succulent flavor is apparent. It’s delicate but worth the initial visual terror.
Shin is also delving into the world of seafood charcuterie with his monkfish liver pâté. Monkfish liver is considered the ‘foie gras of the sea’ and involves nearly as much controversy due to over-fishing of monkfish, which were once a seasonal delicacy. Shin makes the most of what he has, creating a pâté that is at once rich and light, with very little of the ‘fishy’ flavor that one anticipates.
Indeed, it is the best blend of offal and seafood that I could imagine.If you need something heartier than a few rolls, no matter how generous the portion, the Heh Duhp Bap is a tasty option. It is a Korean take on the chirashi bowl, or sashimi cuts served over rice. In the Korean version, diners are presented with a heaping bowl of rice with five to eight types of fish, a variety of vegetables and a smoky, spicy chili sauce. The bowl is presented with a spoon and the instruction to mix the entire concoction up and abandon chopsticks. There’s no time for elegance here.
The chili sauce starts quietly, building in intensity until finally the miso soup that is offered as a way of cutting the heat seems like a great idea. The only drawback of the bowl is that once mixed, it’s impossible to distinguish one fish from another. One must commit and enjoy with no analysis.
On another visit, this time on a frigid day for lunch, the Five-Six combo called to me. The sampler includes five pieces of sushi, six cuts of sashimi and a California roll. All of the cuts were chef’s choice and included hamachi, sake (salmon) and maguro (tuna). The sashimi cuts were generous, veritable slabs of tender selections. The juxtaposition of the same ingredients in sushi and sashimi form was interesting. Especially in the case of the hamachi, the pairing of the slightly sweet fish and the tangy rice is distinct. On its own, the hamachi is fatty and rich; with the rice, it is balanced and fresh.
The standout, surprisingly, on any of the Bob Wasabi sushi items is the salmon. While many may think of salmon as one of the more pedestrian sushi options, when prepared correctly, it is revelatory. Esther mentioned that Shin actually receives whole Norwegian sea-farmed salmon and cures it himself through a process of freezing and thawing to break down the nerves and connective tissue. What results is some of the most tender salmon I have every tasted.
Shin chooses to use sea-farmed salmon because of its consistent quality. Wild caught, Esther says, has the potential to be tough and lean. With innovative sea-farming techniques, Norwegian fish farmers are turning out fatty, luxurious fish that, once in the hands of an expert like Shin, shines with very little fanfare.
Little fanfare is an overarching theme at Bob Wasabi Kitchen. It has a humble storefront. Until they receive their liquor license, they offer green tea and soft drinks. Shin himself is soft-spoken—he’s friendly with patrons at the sushi bar, but quietly, leaving the acrobatics to the tepanyaki chefs. Instead, he demonstrates with each cut why Bob Wasabi Kitchen is a new destination for the some of the finest sushi in Kansas City.