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Wasabi

Plenty of fish in the sea

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Let me float a hypothesis here. I have a call in to the Register of Deeds to verify it, but I will venture to say that the divorce rate in Wake County has dropped in the last 10 years. Could anybody doubt me? Surely, many a marriage has been saved by the advent of Japanese-Thai combination restaurants. First Sushi-Thai arrived, making no secret of its therapeutic menu affiliations, then four years ago, ShabaShabu came on the scene with such a baffling yet mellifluous name it spread through Raleigh like wildfire.

Around the same time, marriage counselors in west Cary noticed a precipitous drop in clients. For along came Wasabi, which got a little sneaky with the name—must be sushi, but surprise! they have Thai too. We can all get along.

Wasabi (107 Edinburgh South, MacGregor Village, Cary, 460-7980) came to my attention thanks to Rachel Choong of Ten-Ten Restaurant on Western Boulevard in Raleigh, which itself was hailed by Vaishali Nayak of last month's link in the Food Chain, Cool Breeze. Ten-Ten is a vast repository of Chinese and other cuisines, offering an unprecedented buffet the length of five cafeteria lines. Its General Tso's chicken, a standard on American Chinese menus, is tart and spicy and greasy with dark meat (all the better for it), and its salt-and-pepper calamari is tender and gently breaded, a middle-finger in the face of all who mock the word "buffet."

But a buffet is hard to quantify at any given moment, with variables of time and temperature. Like marriage, one can only say: Try it for yourself. So on to Wasabi, a rock in the firmament of Cary's cuisine scene. Four years old and serving both sushi and Thai delicacies at lunch and dinner, it has developed a loyal following. Bill and Amy Griffin of Holly Springs, newly wed only a year, dine there regularly. Could we say it keeps their marriage healthy? "Yes, because I don't have to cook!" says Amy. "Once a week we can go out to dinner at Wasabi, and we can share a drink and talk. It's consistent, I would say—we usually get the same thing, but it's always good."

Sushi chef Tawarn Chaiyathirapinyo, originally of Bangkok, moved to Oregon to attend business school in 1983. He worked his way into the industry in south Florida, learning the art of sushi 17 years ago as an apprentice and joining Wasabi at its genesis in 2003. Though Thai, he prefers to man the sushi bar, doling out toro (tuna belly, $5/piece) to Cary's big spenders. (I first ate at Wasabi anonymously on a Monday night, and was happy to find toro as a regular item, when many sushi bars only stock it Thursday-Saturday.)

But it's not just the belly of the tuna that will attract sushi lovers. Everything is right-on: the hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi is delicate and milky, the skin-on saba (mackerel) shimmers silver (and tastes fishier than the Fulton Street dock), and the sake (salmon) is simply perfect. The fish, Chaiyathirapinyo explains, is delivered fresh and then frozen briefly to inhibit the development of bacteria. The chef, who carries his own knives like a samurai his sword, is allowed some latitude in shaping the cuts—to make them, he says, "more luxurious."

A loyalist to the end, Chaiyathirapinyo won't divulge the exact recipe of the sushi rice, but it was sweeter than I've had before—perhaps a little mirin in with that salt and vinegar? Whatever the secret, it is an appealing part of the rolls, which are highly inventive and take up a good part of the menu.

Sushi at Wasabi - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

A couple could find matrimonial harmony here. For the timid, California and eel rolls can be nested in a wooden boat alongside a spouse's aggressive volcano and wasabi rolls. Even mixed marriages will do fine: The Catholic's Mary roll featuring spicy tuna can rub seaweed with the Jew's deep-fried bagel roll featuring lox and cream cheese. The only argument here would be, as in most relationships, over money. Should you really spend $13 on a single roll, even if it does promise three kinds of fish and honors the name of your subdivision, MacGregor? For two, with cold sake and toro, our bill came to $93 before tip.

Unlike ShabaShabu, which requires a commitment at the door ("Thai side or Japanese side?"), Wasabi allows guests to keep their options open. The Thai menu is as tasty as the Japanese, but easier on the wallet. If you were to, say, start with the fragrant Tom Kha soup (coconut with mushrooms and chicken), move on to the "fresh spring rolls" (as opposed to the regular "spring rolls," which are fried, these are cold and colorful, almost artistic, the translucent rice paper revealing the sexy curves of the whole shrimp), and end with the pad Thai or Massaman curry (both very good), you would have enough food for two, and your ticket would come to around $26. If you felt like splurging on the entrée, for $8 more you could order off-menu a specialty of the house called King of the Sea: scallops, shrimp and lobster tail stir-fried in chili paste.

Where to next? Wasabi's Kevin Starkey, a Triangle native, has just moved back from Florida and has been eagerly sampling our local fare. He provides us with the next link in the Food Chain. Here's one hint to tease your taste buds till next time: There's voodoo in the air.

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