There are many reasons to drive from areas of the metro to the community of Gladstone: pretty neighborhoods, gracious homes, the 79-acre Happy Rock Park (Happy Rock being a nickname for Gladstone). And North Oak Trafficway, the town's main artery, which is a happy mecca for certain delights: Chinese buffets, discount smokes, tattoo parlors, thrift stores, joints that tint your car windows.
Gladstone has its culinary treasures, too, including the Latin Bistro and the venerable Hayes Hamburgers & Chili. OK, so maybe treasures is a strong word. But if I lived in Gladstone, those places would count. And I've discovered a new Gladstone restaurant vying to earn its place in that pantheon: a Japanese steakhouse and sushi parlor called Wasahi.
Wait, that should be wasabi, right, after the potent Japanese horseradish powder? Actually, no. On my first visit to the place, I asked owner Sam Oang: "Does the word wasahi mean anything?"
"No," he said. "I just made it up."
Ah. Well, why not. Wasabi would be misleading anyway; there's nothing horseradish-spicy about Wasahi and its completely ordinary dining room. It does, however, serve some surprisingly good food. And it has a devoted following. Several Pitch readers have e-mailed raves to me about the place, and they appear to be driving from all over the city to eat there. The allure seems to be the prices. A friend of mine admitted to being a Wasahi disciple: "It's very good sushi, not great, and it's cheap. Really cheap."
In this economy, I'm all for driving anywhere for a good deal. But is sushi really something that should inspire bargain consciousness? I don't think it is. But it'd been a long time since I'd traveled to Happy Rock, so I was game.
None of the people who had sung Wasahi's praises to me bothered to warn me about its dining room, so I'm performing that service here. It's a forlorn space that looks as though it has endured many disappointing past lives. Among the unsuccessful restaurants previously anchored here were Mexican and Thai venues. In terms of charm, it ranks just above a waiting room in a small-town bus depot — if Greyhound hung red-paper lanterns and had a thing for Buddhas and "Hello Kitty" statuettes.
The first night I dined at Wasahi, joined by Martha (who had never been in Gladstone before and was unaware of the town's existence) and Rhiannon, I was cajoled into dining at one of the restaurant's teppanyaki grills. "It will be fun!" Martha said with the odd and terrible brightness of those who can still be charmed by teppanyaki. The theatricality appeals to many, I know.
As we were led to our chairs in the dining room, we saw just one other occupied table: a humorless couple at one of the other teppanyaki grills. I caught just snippets of their conversation, but it involved someone getting all of his teeth kicked out. "You won't hear dialogue like this in Overland Park," I told Martha.
I was delighted to discover that the teppanyaki grill master that night seemed to share the ennui that his trade inspires in me. He laid off the traditional Japanese-steakhouse performance elements, the rattling salt and pepper shakers, and the cracking of eggs and bad jokes. He intuitively understood that our table required the bare minimum of entertainment.
After some modest egg juggling, shrimp tossing and — yes, yes, yes — the standard onion volcano trick, he dropped the vaudeville and focused on grilling meats and vegetables. All the while, we ate our salads and our lukewarm watery soup — supposedly onion, but it could have been made from chicken bouillon cubes. The iceberg lettuce was doused in a creamy, pinkish dressing instead of the usual punchy ginger sauce. I asked the waitress what was in the dressing. "Mayonnaise," she said, shrugging her shoulders, "and miso and maybe some soy sauce."
The grilled entrées turned out to be very good. The beef was surprisingly tender, and the scallops were plump and expertly prepared. While waiting for the meat, we sampled one of Wasahi's signature rolls, a culinary tribute to the late Princess Diana — or Princess "Diana," as the menu reads. I wonder how the former Princess of Wales would have liked this combination of white tuna, dipped in tempura batter and fried, then rolled up with crab — maybe the real thing because the fake crustacean is called "crab stick" here — and topped with sheaths of raw white tuna. It was pretty tasty but not fit for a queen. At least not the ones at our table.
On my second visit, I took sushi-loving Berry and David to Wasahi for lunch. We had set out to have an all-raw experience, though we did share a couple of fish-free starters: a pile of limp edamame and a basket of unremarkable battered vegetable tempura. Country music played over the sound system, and it was a lot bouncier and more upbeat than the glum serving staff. We wondered if our presence was actually annoying the two waitresses. There were only a few other diners in the joint. There looked to be a lot more action in the St. Jude's Thrift Store next door.
The miso soup that came out with the tempura was pretty tasty but not so hot. The tako nigiri — a milky white ribbon of octopus draped over a pad of rice — was very tender and very good. The makimono rolls that we shared were visually pleasing and emotionally satisfying, particularly the 913 roll, named for the Kansas area code, I guess. (I didn't see an 816 version on the menu.) The slices of this spicy shrimp roll are served dripping with a creamy hot sauce. "It's mayonnaise and hot sauce," the sushi chef yelled from behind the counter.
A more striking roll was the "Rock N Roll," with flash-fried salmon and tuna in tempura batter, rolled around that deceptively named "crab stick" and sheathed in a bright-yellow soybean wrapper. It isn't the Led Zeppelin of sushi, but it's worth an encore.
That crab stick, which sounds vaguely erotic but has no such effect, is the central ingredient of several Wasahi rolls, including the cream-cheese-filled Red Devil. Putting the Philly into sushi is pretty American, but the creaminess doesn't hurt when the rest of the roll is cucumber, avocado and smelt roe. It's more hodgepodge than devil, but Wasahi gets points for the fleshy strips of fresh, ruby-colored tuna perched atop each slice.
All in all, I didn't quite understand Wasahi's reputed popularity. Then the bill arrived. Sushi at a trendier place in Kansas City would have cost at least twice as much (without being twice as good). In fact, I did a little price comparison between Wasahi and several of the local new, unrelentingly hip sushi venues, and I found a big difference in price. Is it worth paying more to dine in more stylish settings with better music, more attentive service and without the drive to Gladstone? Some will say yes, but my wallet just isn't buying it.
Wasahi may not be a real word, but the concept that drives the restaurant is real: Someone has to be the Wal-Mart of local sushi vendors, and I'm happy it's Wasahi.