BY ROBERT FORD

Being named Best Restaurant in Whitefish two years running doesn’t happen by accident, and it just so happens this is one of my top picks as well. My friends and family have eaten here since the beginning, almost 13 years ago, and there’s something about eating sushi that leads to conversation, laughter and good times.

I first met owner Paula Greenstein about five years ago when she and her sister bought Wasabi from the original owners of this incredibly popular eating destination. What transpired after that was one of the smoothest transitions in memory. The packed house continued to be the norm, and diners continued to rave about the food. I asked Paula about that, and her reply was to the point, “don’t change what’s working well.”

Five years later, improvements are there, refinements, empowerments to encourage creativity in the menu, an extraordinary energy level in the wait staff, and an even stronger commitment to take care of customers, all of them. The interior décor is even more comfortable and inviting, and the rear seating area has been redecorated to create an intimate surround. And, Paula Greenstein’s enthusiasm is still infectious. As she says, “restaurants are my comfort zone. I want it to be a wonderful experience every time you come in.”

The menu contains more choices than traditional sushi, nigiri, or sashimi, but sushi certainly takes center stage. Talented Head Chef Phil Vilar’s creative touches are evident throughout the menu. You’ll find some Thai flavors, some curry, and other surprising touches. His well-trained sushi chefs, working in gleamingly clean sushi stations, and his sous chef move with amazing speed to produce beautiful platters of food. Only the freshest of ingredients are used, locally sourced when possible. Service is superb, and you can rely on your waitperson to guide you, if needed.

I like to order one or more types of Nigiri and Sashimi, and surround that with sushi rolls. Ebi (shrimp), Hamachi (yellowtail, perhaps my favorite of favorites), Miguro (tuna), Masu (smoked rainbow trout), Sake (salmon) seem to appear on a regular basis.

As far as rolls go, the Spicy Tuna Roll, a house recipe spicy tuna with cucumber and masago (capelin fish roe) starts the list. I love the crunch of the cucumber and the pop of the roe.

Montana Roll, smoked rainbow trout, tamago (sweet egg omelette), scallions, cucumber, chives and roe. All of these flavors go so well with the smoked trout.

Phil’s Roll, tempura shrimp, asparagus, tamago, shichimi (Japanese spice blend), sesame oil and scallions. All wrapped in fresh tuna with cholula (hot sauce). Unbelievably delicious.

Yellowjacket, hamachi (yellowtail), scallions, tobiko (flying fish roe) and schichimi. Almost always order this.

OMG It’s Spicy Roll, spicy scallop, sriracha (chile sauce) cream cheese, scallions, Thai chilies, tempura fried shrimp. It’s got some kick, and it’s excellent.

There is literally something for everyone. The Ginger Grill menu has a wide range of appetizers, soups and salads, and some intriguing grill items. For those who aren’t sure about sushi or sashimi, you’ll find some tasty offerings here. By the way, less than half of the menu items contain raw fish. Just saying.

The Cadillac Crab Cakes, made with Dungeness crab are a huge favorite. The Shrimp Tempura Coctail is a mouthwatering combination of tempura shrimp, horseradish guacamole, roe, and Thai coctail sauce. Prawns wrapped in bacon, spring rolls, and edamame (lightly salted soy beans). And that’s just a part of the appetizers. Add Miso soup, and my favorite, the Chilled Adadaba Ahi Salad.

The Grill serves up some really appetizing entrees: Bangkok Duck, Blackened Tenderloin, Hanabi Stir Fry with shrimp, chicken or beef. The Sweet Chili Fusion Pad Thai is very, very popular.

Wasabi’s wine and sake list is a good one with equally good value. Hand-picked wines, including quite a few of the sparkling variety, and an impressive list of chilled, filtered and unfiltered sakes. Sake is great with sushi and if you’re not sure which one to try, order the Sake Tasting Trio. I still order sake this way. Trying them all takes more than one visit, and that’s a good thing. The Rihaku Dreamy Clouds Sake is a winner. Hot sake? You can have that, too. Or you can have a beer, Japanese beer, domestic beer, bottled and draft and there’s always a local hand crafted brew available.

Wasabi is a very busy restaurant, and reservations are a wise idea. They’ll do everything they can to accommodate your family and friends. The Haymoon Downtown Flat upstairs is available for groups and special events. Check out its Facebook page for news on upcoming wine tastings and the Dine For A Cause community night schedule.

My goal is to have something new each time I eat at Wasabi. That’s why it’s so much fun to go with a friend, or friends. Sharing lets everyone try a bit of everything. It’s how discovery happens, and it’s always fun to see the look of surprise on someone’s face when they enjoy the new flavors. I hope you’ll experience the great times that I have on your next visit. Or your first visit.

Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill
419 Second Street in Whitefish
406-863-9283
www.wasabimt.com
Open nightly at 5:00 PM