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In Aoyagi You Trust

At Tustin's Sushi Wasabe, the chef makes all the choices--and diners approve.

April 19, 2001|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"We serve only sushi!"

This is likely to be repeated two or more times if you call for a reservation at Sushi Wasabe in Tustin. "Only sushi and hand rolls! No California rolls!" No kidding--you can't even get miso soup there.

In other words, Sushi Wasabe, which opened 10 months ago in a strip mall at Newport Avenue and Walnut Street, is staunchly traditional. A hand-written sign next to the sushi bar informs you that the sushi is served Omakase style, which means "Trust me." When you sit down at the bar, you put your fate in the hands of chef-owner Katsu Aoyagi, leaving the selection to him.

I dare say Aoyagi is trustworthy, nearly infallible. His delivery is elegantly understated; his creations are abundant with subtle flourishes, ravishing to the eye as well as the palate. Drizzlings of sesame oil, flecks of spring onions and dollops of an orange-colored mush I couldn't quite identify (it was crowned by a miniature ringlet of green onion) are among the many lovely touches. I've had a fair amount of exquisite sushi over the years, and I have to say that Sushi Wasabe holds its own alongside the best, and the prices are reasonable.

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The fish itself is outstanding. There's another hand-lettered sign posted on the door as you enter: "We can serve good sushi because we go to fish market and then we buy good fish." "We" apparently means Aoyagi, a one-man band aided only by a waitress who attentively replenishes your sake. When a friend asked him where Aoyagi gets his fish, he told us he goes to Los Angeles before dawn every day, hitting as many as six markets and hand-picking supplies.

The justifiable pride he takes in his stock is evident in the pronounced informational aspect of his delivery. "Hai! Alaskan albacore!" "Hai! Texas blue crab!" On two separate visits, the albacore was the overture to a varying symphony of flavors and textures. Three generous slices of fine albacore, swimming in a puddle of a mild soy-ginger sauce, were set before each of us.

This was also one of the few sashimi selections; Aoyagi will make sashimi if asked, but you get the feeling his heart isn't in it. When a friend expressed her preference for sashimi, he rewarded (or maybe punished) her with three morsels of bright yellow sea urchin--impressively creamy and flavorful but maybe not the best call for sashimi. To be fair, this may have been the luck of the draw. (I stuck with the sushi and was happier.)

Let it be said that Aoyagi is no sushi Nazi. "You like everything?" he asks as the meal commences. If the answer is no, he'll offer substitutions for those like another friend, who draws the line at smoked eel. I like it, though, and was happy with the pleasingly tender steak-like texture and mild teriyaki sauce.

A number of offerings that you'd expect to be fairly chewy, even in good sushi places, are astonishingly supple here. For example, the raw shrimp, gorgeously split and shimmering, was the softest and sweetest I've ever had; so were the glistening wafers of raw octopus. Salmon comes with a delightful sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and spring onion that played nicely off the sweetness of the fish.

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The selection at fish markets fluctuates daily, but be sure to ask whether scallops are available. Aoyagi knows when to leave well enough alone, and these perfect specimens are served completely unadorned to show off their complex, vaguely nutty flavor.

Most items are laid before you on chilled plates; others, such as the hand rolls, are passed directly to you from behind the bar. The fingerlings of sticky rice on which the fish is set are warmish, or at least room temperature, unlike the chilled, gummy globs you so often find. And this does a lot to galvanize the taste of the seafood.

Sushi Wasabe's wasabi is a far cry from the usual dry, grainy ball of green Japanese horseradish. Aoyagi, who wears a baseball cap while he works, mixes his own regularly, making for a fresh-tasting, creamy paste that packs a wallop but has more nuance of flavor than most renditions. Also superior are the impressively pliant shavings of fresh ginger that go along with every sushi meal.

The Japanese hand rolls are wonderful and come in several variations. On both of my visits we were presented with one made with succulent Texas blue crab and another with spicy tuna, which seemed closer to tuna tartare than the usual mayonnaise-laced mixture. In contrast to the tightly wrapped symmetry of the California rolls we're more accustomed to, they're conical and almost rustic in presentation; what makes them a standout is their freshness. Served within seconds of being made, the seaweed paper is crackling and dry, having had no time to absorb moisture from the rice.

The restaurant itself is casual, with a bar of laminated pine; fairly basic, but pleasant nonetheless. The wall behind the bar is lined with booths. Sit there and you can make your own selections. But on two visits, my friends and I preferred to sit at the bar and peer over the glass display case, watching the lone chef as he sliced and diced and made sauces on the spot.

To drink, there's a robust plum wine, sake served warm or chilled and beer. For dessert, well, there's a doughnut shop next door.

Sushi Wasabe is moderate. Individual servings (two to three pieces) range from $3.20 to $6.

* Sushi Wasabe, 14460 Newport Ave., Suite F, Tustin. (714) 505-3496. Open for lunch noon-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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