The promise made by the out-of-the-ordinary exterior of Wazzabi Sushi extends to the dining experience. A fenced outdoor patio efficiently utilizes a sliver of space adorned by boxy lanterns and naturally shaped tables made in Vietnam from slices of cypress trees. Inside, the fine quality of the food and the lively atmosphere distinguish this establishment.
By the time you've walked up to the door, a sensation of warmth and beauty has set in. Because of the aesthetic transformation, it's easy to forget that you're on a side street adjacent to the Kmart parking lot, across from Winter Park Village. A flood of color and activity hits you as you step in. The open room has several distinctive nooks a bar with cushy couches, a sushi bar with counter seats, cozy tables filling the space in between and a glass wall separates the main room from the teppanyaki enclave, where chefs put on flamboyant performances of chopping and grilling.
There was a half-hour wait to eat outside, and we were almost seated at one of the teppanyaki tables but decided we weren't in the mood to interact with the other diners seated around the cooking station. Our chosen table fell in the center of the restaurant, affording a view of two flat-screen TVs over the sushi bar, separated by a distinctive artwork composed of lighted lime-green lettering that spelled "Wazzabi."
Seemingly everywhere our eyes landed, there was some unique accent. Hammered aluminum emblazoned with "Wazzabi" shone on the sushi bar, over which were suspended waves of brightly colored glass panels. Hanging lights of varying sizes and colors were suspended throughout the room.
Just as the different choices of seating can provide different experiences, so can the menu; you can go with sushi and sashimi, teppanyaki fare or full entrees. Wazzabi bills itself as a "Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar," so we started there: steak and sushi.
Leisurely browsing through the myriad offerings on the menu, we sipped the green-tinted concoction that was served instead of water. Our waiter said it was green tea, but it tasted like water with a touch of green essence, like spirulina or alfalfa, and it was refreshing. Finally, we narrowed down our choices: hiyashi wakame ($4) salad; an appetizer called "tuna fire balls" ($8); a "Buddha roll" ($12); and a "cherry blossom fillet" steak ($30).
The presentation of our seaweed salad was stylish. Shredded sea greens tossed in chili sesame vinaigrette made for a cool, springy crunch with every bite. We were counting on the hot "tuna fire balls" for balance, but our waiter missed his cue. After our entrees were served, the fire balls arrived at the hands of the owner himself (the former owner of Ohashi Sushi), with his apologies, at no charge. It's my philosophy that it's how we handle mistakes that really counts, and so Wazzabi has my respect for their classy recoup. The mixture of minced tuna, jalapeño, cream cheese and spices rolled into a ball, then battered and fried, produced a burst of flavor. I'm glad we didn't miss them.
Coming from the list of the chef's special rolls, the fresh and flavorful Buddha was "a spicy tuna roll with tempura crunch and cucumber wrapped with tuna, shrimp and avocado," topped with Wazzabi's sweet and spicy sauce. This was an artistic plate of sushi, striped with red and green. There are dozens of other varieties to explore between the rest of the chef's list (including an "albacore almond roll" and a "piña colada roll" with scallops and white tuna) and the comprehensive list of common favorites (including California, salmon, rainbow, volcano, etc.).
Having checked the menu in advance (www.wazzabisushi.com), I couldn't stop thinking about the cherry blossom fillet, and my dreams were realized. The tender 9-ounce cut of beef was "crusted in black peppercorn" and cooked just as I requested it, between medium and medium rare. The cabernet-cherry sauce, with pieces of cherry, was rich and not too sweet. Sitting below the tenderloin was a lean portion of spinach mashed potatoes; I would have liked more. On top were several layers of tempura onion rings crunchy and tasty finished with a tempura lotus root that sounded exotic but tasted somewhat bland, like yuca.
With so many successes, we had to try dessert, and we picked winners: tempura cheesecake ($5) and pineapple coconut mousse ($6). I don't believe in moaning about fat content, so I enjoyed every bite of the fried cheesecake and the creamy, fruity mousse. My only complaint: Wazzabi doesn't serve coffee. You'll have to walk a few steps around the block to Starbucks to grab a cup.
Wazzabi is designed to fulfill a variety of desires: eating sushi at the bar, experiencing the teppanyaki performance, having drinks and appetizers out on the patio. A restaurant with so many options in such classy, friendly surroundings is a welcome addition to this otherwise unspectacular area of Winter Park.