WASAI Japanese Kitchen is hidden in a narrow side street off Adelaide’s major eat street – Gouger Street – and if it wasn’t for friends taking me there one night I would never had known it existed (or the side street for that matter).
It is pretty non-descript from the outside but as you enter you are greeted by wooden floors, dark wooden tables and quite a smart-looking and deep space with walls adorned with retro Japanese beer girl posters advertising the likes of Asahi (very much in the same genre as those famous Chinese cigarette poster girls).
I’m here catching up with four old mates as I’m back in Adelaide and Wasai has been recommended by Ains and Bec – a couple of gals who love coming here together for the odd girlie catch-up before heading off to one of the refurbished and swanky bars that seem to be popping up around this area of the city.
As the menus come around a bowl of edamame (boiled soya beans in the shell), are placed on the table – gratis. At every Japanese restaurant I have been to edamame needs to be ordered – this is an impressive start to Wasai’s hospitality.
Wasai offers what seems to be a complete range of Japanese specialities with a couple of twists and innovations. Examples include different sorts of nigiri sushi and creative types of rolled sushi (with names like dynamite, dragon and spider). Then there are Japanese street staples like karrage (deep-fried chicken); gyoza (dumplings); tempura and soba noodles. Finally, meals such as hot pots, noodles and rice sets are available or there is a choice of banquets.
Ains and Bec want to take control. Tonight I am in their town, at their restaurant and on their time (but alas not on their money), so I leave the ordering to them. The gals are insistent that we order a variety of entrée-style dishes – gyoza, takoyaki and miso soup and then a deluxe sushi and sashimi boat. No arguments here – all of this is classic Japanese ‘pub’ food (known as izakaya food) and what that calls for is sake.
If there was one thing that was to strike me tonight it was Wasai’s sake menu. There are eight types served in either 120ml or 270ml flasks. The sake page details where each originates from but most importantly there is also an indicator of their sweetness/dryness level (by a numbering system – the higher the number the drier). The staff were exceptionally helpful in choosing and indicating the differences and their favourites. I chose the Hakkaaisan Jummai Ginjyou from Niigata ($12/$26) which was mid-rage in the dryness/sweetness scale and the most expensive on the list. It had a delicate perfume and a full-bodied slightly sweet flavour and dry finish and was to be the perfect accompaniment to what was to follow.
Miso soups can be hit or miss. Some restaurants use miso paste – others go the easy way out and use packet blends. This miso ($3) was flavoursome and creamy without that chalkiness that packet miso can have and had four slices of puffy fried tofu floating within.
The age-gyoza ($7) were four plump deep-fried dumplings stuffed with a combination of minced pork, cabbage and nira (garlic chives). The mixture seemed to be seasoned with soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil. They were not oily, slightly crisp and perfectly seasoned.
The takoyaki ($7.50) are basically an octopus and vegetable dough-like ball that is then lightly fried. Wasai’s are presented on a long ceramic rectangular plate. Eight golden spheres are perfectly lined in a row and are dressed with a zig-zag of rich okonomiyaki barbecue sauce and topped with nori slithers and katsuobushi (benito flakes) that seem to slither and sway on top. These are as traditional as you can get – it is rare to have takoyaki with such typical toppings in Australia (where they’re usually sold on a stick). They have a delicate batter and a soft inner centre of mashed vegetables (green onion and ginger with a piece of octopus in the centre and a crisp golden crust). They have a wonderful sweet/savoury combination with the toppings providing some added ‘oomph’ and richness to these little snack balls made famous in Osaka.
Eyes widened when the deluxe sushi and sashimi boat ($54) overcrowded with colourful pieces of nigiri sushi, sushi rolls, and a variety of sashimi including scallop, oysters, tuna, salmon and kingfish, docked. The sushi was well prepared with a nice balance of tender rice and vinegar and the sashimi certainly fresh and well cut. The array and amount on the boat was impressive.
The lads, not content with the wonderful examples of ‘pub food’ and the excellent boat, decided to peruse the chef’s specials (five to choose from). The specials were a ramen; salmon belly sashimi; a salmon roll; salmon karaage and mango sorbet. As I’m a ramen fan I couldn’t resist ordering the jigoku ramen ($11.80) which was a spicy ramen with pork, onion and coriander. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to my expectations. The broth, although slightly chilli flavoured, was rather bland and watery without any body, the noodles were gluggy and over cooked and the pork were just strips of thinly cut fillet (the type that would be in a phở. Maybe the chef was now out of the kitchen as it was a let down to the other dishes we had during the evening.
After dinner, true to form, Ains and Bec dragged us out to one of those done-up pubs (thankfully The Hotel Metropolitan with a pleasant mix of drinkers), where I discovered the excellent The Hills Cider Company cider on tap (made from Adelaide Hills apples). Unlike most ciders that can be too dry and lack any flavour (or too sweet), this one is crisp and dry with lasting slight poached and baked apple flavours lingering on the palate. A case of it followed me home back to Sydney a couple of weeks later.
The verdict: A casual, friendly and appealing restaurant with an excellent and well-priced variety of Japanese staples with a few creative touches on the menu. Despite one little let down, Wasai offers a nice distraction to the fast and fluid Gouger Street restaurant artery.
What: Wasai Japanese Kitchen, 9/15 Field Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000. Phone (08) 8221-6606. Open: Dinner only on Monday to Saturday from 6pm. Web: http://www.wasai.com.au
The Hotel Metropolitan, 46 Grote Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000.
The Hills Cider Company: www.thehillscidercompany.com.au
Ate there: 12 February 2011.