"This feels like you're in Japan," declared my dining companion. "For Abu Dhabi, it's fantastic." We had just settled ourselves into a cosy booth for two at Wasabi, which has long had a reputation for the best sushi in town. But it has much, much more in its culinary arsenal than its almost intimidating array of raw seafood offerings (for a hint of what's on the menu, consider 30 variations of maki rolls and 13 nigiri options).
Located in the Al Diar Mina Hotel, Wasabi is decidedly unpretentious - slightly down-at-heel, to be perfectly honest - as befits a restaurant that aspires to emulate one of Japan's ubiquitous izakaya establishments, which serve largely as after-work gathering places where friends and colleagues can relax and enjoy good food at reasonable prices. My companion for the evening was a Canadian who had spent five years working in Tokyo and Kyoto. As he's also something of a regular at Wasabi, I promptly handed over the evening's ordering to him, and after a somewhat unconvincing attempt at wriggling out of the assignment he set about the task with considerable relish, first of all explaining that the Japanese tend to eat according to the season, and that what they'd have on a hot summer's day would differ significantly from winter.
Here in Abu Dhabi, it was a 40-plus July evening and we started with a plate of tsukemono, the pickles that typically serve as a side dish to Japanese meals, including chicken gyoza. Particularly good were the daikon (Japanese radish) and plum, which was tangy-sweet and delicious. The carrots, however, were decidedly run-of-the-mill, with barely a hint of pickling. The gyoza, a half-dozen succulent dumplings, were properly fried on one side and steamed on the other. While the minced-chicken filling was rather bland, and the sauce that accompanied them also lacked pizzaz, they were fine without being memorable.
We followed with four kinds of nigiri sushi - tamago (egg omelette), sake (salmon), ikura (salmon roe) and avocado. The highlights were the tamago, the slightly sweet and feathery-light egg concoction that defies western versions of the omelette, and the ikura, a personal favourite - I love the sensation of the small, crunchy salmon roe bursting open in the mouth and unleashing their slightly salty, gently tangy flavours. The avocado was just right - ripe, but with a little crunch to it. It was the salmon that could have been better in both texture and taste.
The zaru soba, which followed, was excellent. The mound of perfectly al dente soba noodles were served cold (the summer version of the dish) and were accompanied by a pleasant, soya-sauce based dip. Next came goma-ae, salad made with sesame dressing. It was the only item we ordered that proved less authentic than the rest of our experience, but a detail the restaurant dealt with admirably. The most popular version ofgoma-ae uses spinach, lightly cooked and tossed in a fairly thick sesame-based sauce. The one advertised on the Wasabi menu features green beans, which my companion had not noticed; so when the dish arrived he questioned it with our efficient and unfailingly cheerful waitress (take a bow, Jackie). It was promptly whisked away and, inside a few minutes, replaced with the spinach version.
It was the first time I'd tried the dish, and it was an unqualified success. The thickish sauce was a perfect complement to the spinach, bringing out the distinct flavour of the vegetable without in any way overwhelming it. For main courses my companion ordered the miso black cod for me and - sidelining authenticity for personal preference - the chili prawn for himself. The black cod, marinated in miso sauce and lightly pan fried, was simple and quite delicious, with the surface ever-so-slightly caramelised and the moist white fish juicy throughout.
The chili prawns, in a tangy sweet and sour sauce, were more Chinese than Japanese, but that didn't detract in the slightest from the success of the dish. The prawns weren't particularly big, but they were cooked to perfection and the sauce had enough bite to command your attention without being too hot to handle comfortably. At which stage I should point out that, in the interests of sampling as much as we could from a huge menu, we had ordered rather more than two people needed. We could have eaten well for a fair bit less than our Dh400-plus tab.
Wasabi at the Al Diar Mina Hotel, Abu Dhabi (02677 8415). Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh465.16, excluding beverages, but including a 10 per cent service charge and 6 per cent tourism fee. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National. Hubert Fiorentini is a nom de plume.