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PLATED: Wasabi sushi shines in Superior

Wasabi’s vegetarian sweet potato roll (left) and Futo Maki roll are two of more than a dozen rolls prepared by sushi chefs on site. Photo by Dennis Kempton / For the News Tribune1 / 5
Wasabi’s Eel Roll features fresh eel and cucumber hand-rolled in nori and rice. Photo by Dennis Kempton / For the News Tribune2 / 5
Wasabi’s Miso Soup is one of several dashi-based soups with scallions and tofu. Photo by Dennis Kempton / For the News Tribune3 / 5
The illuminated bar at Wasabi fronts the dining room. Photo by Dennis Kempton / For the News Tribune4 / 5
The dining room at Wasabi is sleek and modern with subtle Asian influences. Photo by Dennis Kempton / For the News Tribune5 / 5

The spot at 3333 Tower Ave. in Superior seems to have nine lives. Formerly a drive-through liquor store that was formerly a Wendy's, the space has been renovated for yet another life — this time as Wasabi Japanese Cuisine. Sushi in Superior? Oh yes, dear reader. Oh, yes.

Americans have had a complicated relationship with Japanese cuisine. Japanese immigrants, like so many others, brought their food culture with them to America but it wasn't until about 40 years ago that it sort of exploded onto the American scene, beginning on the coasts. Over the years, it has found its way to every place in the country in around 5,000 Japanese restaurants — even in northern Wisconsin.

Sushi, sashimi and teriyaki are Americans' favorites, and the Japanese have had to heavily adapt their native food to please American palates. A California roll, for example, is a purely American invention. True Japanese sushi is all about the freshest fish and vegetables. It doesn't feature avocado or some other fillers that overpower the fish so acutely. The thing about America, though, is that we fold our cultures together, until the result is something distinctly our own.

Wasabi is easy to find on the long stretch of Tower Avenue across from Essentia Health's hospital in Superior. The transformation of the interior is modern with dark woods and complementary Asian decor. The one big flaw is a large flat-screen TV in the dining room. It was tuned to a sports game when I was there. It's unfortunate. We should be able to enjoy good food and good company without TVs in any place other than a bona fide sports bar.

Sushi chefs are set behind the bar in front of the main dining room, adding some flair. And the menu? It's a big menu. But, don't get overwhelmed. There's an all-you-can-eat option for $19.99. You can pace yourself and try everything on the menu without having to take out a loan.

I started with a classic miso soup. This traditional soup is made from a base of dashi made with kelp. It adds tremendous umami to the soup, along with the miso paste and tofu. Wasabi's miso is rich and flavorful. The menu offers a spicy version as well. It's a little light on the tofu, which would add some texture and smoothness to the soup, but the miso is an excellent starting point.

American sushi has a lot of filler, and it's usually served rolled with rice to cover the traditional nori wrap. The thing I like most about American Japanese sushi is the fulsome variety it presents, welcoming almost everyone to the table. Wasabi's vegetarian options include a roll made with roasted sweet potato, and it's addicting. Flavored with a hint of maple and sesame oil, it has a subtle crunch and smoothness that follows. The texture is almost meaty inside the rice and nori.

I tried two more rolls because how can you not? The Futo Maki, a harmonious combination of creamy avocado, cucumber, pickled radish, crab, egg and squash, is perhaps the most filling roll I've had at any restaurant in recent memory. The chefs know their sushi, and that balance required crisp vegetables. It's fresh-tasting and bright.

Eel? Yes. Wasabi's eel roll is light, with just the right mouthfeel of firmness and chew. Eel's subtle flavor doesn't overpower the cucumber, and the roll is delightfully simple.

To round off the abundant menu, I also had the Hibachi chicken. I love Hibachi cooking and its showmanship, but this dish, compared to the expertise and flavor of the sushi, was almost forgettable. The vegetables were lackluster, and the chicken, while tender, can't compare to the fresh sushi fish.

Wasabi is an above-average representative of Japanese-American cuisine. That it's nestled in Superior makes it stand out all the more. Its star is the sushi, rolled tight and bursting with freshness and diversity. Everything else is too familiar, like a well-worn sweater. Comfort-food for sure, but if you want a memorable night, make sure you roll with the sushi.

Review: Wasabi Japanese Cuisine

3333 Tower Avenue, Superior

(715) 718-8033

www.wasabisushisuperior.com

Dennis Kempton is an arts and culture writer in Duluth.

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