I've always said that the aural quality — the music and the noise level — are important components in the dining experience. God knows, I don't want to eat in a monastic setting, but sometimes silence is preferable to deafening (the music at the Italian bistro North, in Leawood, comes to mind) or to my recent experience at a suburban Tex-Mex joint, where the music was so gothic and oppressive that I kept waiting for Nosferatu to fly out of the kitchen.
It says a lot about the excellent cuisine at Lawrence's Wa that I didn't lose my appetite when I heard the cringe-inducing voice of Lynn Anderson wafting through the sound system. She was wailing her 1970 hit, "(I Never Promised You) A Rose Garden," just as I was biting into a superb and visually dazzling shrimp tempura and spicy crab creation called the Downtown Roll. Hey, I'm not advocating that all sushi restaurants be limited to tinkly Tokyo teahouse arrangements, but does this Massachusetts Street restaurant really have to play golden oldies?
"You're being a sound snob," my friend Truman said as he fumbled with his chopsticks. "Most people just tune all the background noise out — even the music."
That's probably true. I tried to forget the music and zero in on various décor elements, like an ornate cabinet with dozens of tiny cubbyholes. Each cubbyhole had at least one narrow box with a paper label on it.
"What are in those boxes?" I asked the waiter.
"Chopsticks," he said. "The regulars store their own chopsticks here."
That reminded me to ask him for a fork. I don't even pretend to be able to maneuver an iceberg-lettuce salad, served here with a fine gingery dressing, with chopsticks. I admire diners who are deft with those bamboo utensils, but they're not for me. That's why I like sushi. I can eat it with my fingers.
Soon enough, we encountered a different kind of audio issue, one I don't think I had ever experienced: a waiter who spoke so softly that, before the end of the meal, I began to think I was hearing-impaired. In fact, on that first visit to Wa, I grew so frustrated straining to understand what the young man was whispering to us that I finally gave up and just looked for visual clues. It was like being served by a mime.
Truman thought it was hilarious. He has a contrarian view of Japanese restaurants anyway: "I grew up in Florida, baby, and no one heard of eating raw fish. We fried it!"
In honor of that, we started our meal with the 740 (Heart Attack) Roll. It's a beautifully golden and crispy deep-fried assemblage of spicy tuna, jalapeño peppers and cream cheese splattered Jackson Pollock-style with two fiery chile sauces.
It wasn't sushi in any classic sense. And though Wa does offer an excellent selection of traditional nigiri and sashimi, Truman wasn't interested in any of that. He toyed with the idea of chicken katsu — the closest thing the Japanese have to Southern fried chicken. But I convinced him to order a bento box, knowing that he'd find the arrangement of small delicacies aesthetically pleasing. Truman made the mistake of asking the whispering waiter which he thought was better: the salmon or chicken teriyaki. We watched, riveted, by his inaudible explanation. "This is fantastic," Truman whispered afterward. "It's like Kabuki theater!"
So Truman received a dainty box, each compartment artfully arranged with something tasty: round slices of California Roll, a sculptural collection of fried tempura-battered vegetables, a little salad and the teriyaki salmon. The soy-slathered salmon was fine, but I wouldn't call it a serving of fish as much as a significant sliver. I've seen relics of the True Cross that were bigger.
But it was an appealing, relaxing meal, and I could understand why friends of mine have become devoted to the place. "It's the best sushi in the metro," one friend of mine insists, "even if it is in Kansas."
The kimono-clad sushi masters behind the bar don't ignore their restaurant's unique location: Wa serves a Jayhawk Roll, a Lawrence Roll, a KU Roll, a Mass Roll and a White Castle Roll (alas, it's made with super-white tuna instead of onion-slathered beef).
There's also a Sean Connery Roll — eating that would be too Freudian to consider, even for me — and a sushi pizza, which my friend Linda swears is fantastic: a fried rice patty topped with chopped fresh fish, crab, avocado, masago (the bright-orange roe known as Icelandic caviar) and onion. I thought about ordering it but decided that some culinary novelties are better left to the imagination.
Instead, I ordered one of the sushi combo plates: a California Roll, of course (it's like the french fries of Japanese cuisine) and wonderful spicy tuna and salmon rolls.
For my second visit, I took sushi-hating Bob to prove a point: Wa's menu boasts items that even sushiphobes will find appealing. He loved the tempura shrimp, raving about its light, greaseless, flaky exterior; he was equally enamored of the Korean-style beef teriyaki, served with onion and cilantro. "It's tender and delicious," he said. "I can't stop eating it."
He did, however, stop long enough to engage our server — yes, the same soft-spoken one — in a real conversation. Because the dining room wasn't that busy and the server was more relaxed, I could actually hear him this time. He told Bob bits and pieces of his life story, but I only remember the part where he saw a beautiful girl at an Aerosmith concert, and without even knowing each other, they fell into a passionate embrace.
I was more interested in my meal than in the server's love life, so I was focusing on one of the Korean "Wa House Specials." Here, the dish known in Seoul as Daeji Bulgogi is called Spicy Pork Bulgoki. It arrived sizzling and hissing on an iron platter with chopped cabbage, onion and bay leaves. It's spicy, all right — I'd call it ass-kicking hot — and gloriously good.
The server had suggested the Downtown Roll as a nice, crunchy counterpoint to the spicy pork, and it was terrific, too. While I was in a sensual reverie, I found I could tune out the repulsive tune that was playing over the stereo system: Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch."
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