Asian fusion artistry is the name of the game at Wabi Venice

By Richard Foss

The Southeast Asian influenced Rain Roll features shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, jalapenos, amberjack and sauces delightful sauces.

We live in a world of linguistic mysteries, of products and businesses with foreign names that are sometimes meaningful, sometimes whimsical, sometimes gibberish. Häagen-Dazs, for example, doesn’t mean anything — a Brooklyn entrepreneur just thought it sounded exotic and vaguely Scandinavian. Wolfgang Puck named his restaurant Spago (Italian for “string”) because he liked the sound of the word.

The popular Abbot Kinney Boulevard sushi bar Wabi Venice does, however, relate to a real Japanese concept. Wabi is a word for things that are subdued, austere and beautiful, like an ink brush painting or a Zen rock garden. Thus one might expect a subtle, minimalist décor with wide expanses of blank wall broken by exquisite small items.

Which isn’t even close — though the décor is a feast for the eyes since a recent remodel. Patrons enter via a lively bar area with a free-form countertop, pass into a tranquil space filled with plants and light, and finally come to the sushi bar with mirrors and incongruous Victorian floral wallpaper. Even if you decide to dine in the bar, as I did, it’s worth taking a stroll through the place just to admire the decorator’s art.

The menu is as eclectic as the décor, with contemporary creations outnumbering traditional items. There are even a few items with no tether to Japanese tradition at all, like a ribeye steak and barbecued pork ribs, but in general the theme is Asian fusion. I was dining with someone who is an enthusiast for their modern sushi items, and as he had particular favorites I let him do most of the ordering.

New chef Rain Pantana’s style has something to do with his Thai heritage and his time at Sashi, the Manhattan Beach restaurant that had an outsized influence during its brief existence. Wabi isn’t making outrageous dishes like the udon carbonara or the eel, foie gras and mango rolls that Sashi pioneered, which is fine because the food at that restaurant was hit-and-miss. But Wabi does use pickled chilies and Southeast Asian ingredients in a way that mirrors some of the more sensible offerings from that restaurant.

We started with a Pablo Escobar Roll, reasoning that nothing says fine dining like a dish named after a Columbian drug lord. The menu says this contains crawfish salad, avocado and tuna with truffle ponzu, and is topped with shaved fried leek. I assume there is no cocaine in there, but then again the menu doesn’t say anything about the microgreens or the seeded pickled Serrano chili.

Whatever the ingredients, it’s a superb item and one I’d heartily recommend. Frying the leek adds a delightful texture and intensifies the flavor, and with the mild chili gives a great counterpoint to the seafood. The presentation is beautiful and it was a great start to the meal.

The other items my friend selected were crispy rice with spicy tuna and a Rain Roll (shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, jalapenos, amberjack and sauces). I ordered a classic skewered eggplant with a sweet miso glaze.

The Rain Roll had a pronounced Southeast Asian influence and was delightful. The crispy rice item was less successful, mainly because the thick patty of rice under the tuna was slightly gummy rather than crisp. A thinner fried rice ball would have created a better item, both in terms of texture and overall effect.

The new décor at Wabi Venice is a veritable feast for the eyes.

Compared to the sushi items my grilled eggplant was almost retro, but it was good on its own merits and made a fine counterpoint to the sushi items. The simple flavors contrasted well with the more ornate sushi rolls, and it’s a good choice as a palate cleanser.

Wabi offers a variety of sakes, wines and other beverages, but my companion ordered something different. The founder of a distillery, he ordered shots of an unaged brandy called Frisco that is made in the Peruvian pisco style. While this is much higher in alcohol content than sake (45% alcohol rather than 15% to 20%), it is similar to some varieties of the Japanese liquor called shochu, a popular pairing with sushi. The distillation from Muscat grapes gives Frisco fruity overtones that are reminiscent of sugar cane based shochus, and it’s worth trying if you enjoy experimenting with different flavor combinations.

The rolls at Wabi Venice are generously sized but somewhat more expensive than you’d find at Japanese restaurants not occupying such pricey real estate. You’re paying for an upscale and esoteric experience in surroundings to match. There is a place for the minimalism, tradition and serenity implied by this restaurant’s name, but it isn’t Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Wabi Venice, 1635 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 314-2229