I traveled to Kasai, a Japanese restaurant nearly an hour away, on the recommendation of a chef. I went back less than a month later not because I had to, but because I wanted to. And I'll go back again just as soon as I work off those sizable sushi tabs.
"Where are you going?" more than a few friends asked when I divulged my upcoming dining schedule.
"Wadsworth," I replied. "For sushi." I had to look it up too, not knowing Wadsworth from Wooster from Kalamazoo. Located about 10 miles west of Akron, it's pretty much a straight shot down I-77, until the end, when it isn't.
"What's wrong with Pacific East or Sasa?" my frequent dining companions sniffed. "You love those places."
Yes I do, but does that mean I'm relegated to eating every last grain of rice in either of two restaurants? Besides, word on the street was that Kasai was cutting some of the finest fish in Northeast Ohio. Doesn't that juicy tip warrant a road trip?
Conventional wisdom states that every mile away from the sea represents an ebb in sushi quality. With fish being flown in from all parts of the globe, that's just not the case. What is important is how much a chef is willing to pay for it, what he is capable of doing with it, and how long he's willing to sell it.
On two occasions, I deposited myself at the sushi bar of Kasai and said to chef and owner Leon Liang, "omakase" (rough translation: Do with me as you will). On each occasion I left, hours later, fat, happy, tipsy, and eager to return. If a diner requires anything more than that from a meal, he is sorely misguided.
Chinese-born Liang made his way to Northeast Ohio, he explained, by way of Charleston, South Carolina, where he apprenticed, and Montrose, where he ran the sushi bar at the Mustard Seed Market. Five years ago, he took his talents to Wadsworth and opened Kasai. Located in a small strip mall, the restaurant itself is comfortable, contemporary, and bland. There are tables, booths, and a couple of tatami rooms, where diners sit on the floor. But if you're serious about fish, sit at the eight-seat sushi bar.
At the start of one night's meal, Liang reached over the counter and handed us bowls of refreshing crab and cucumber salad. Like an amuse bouche, they are compliments of the house. Proud of the fish he received earlier in the day, the chef prepared a dish of black-pepper-crusted tuna ($8.95). Barely seared and wafer-thin, it rested in a shallow pool of honey-wasabi sauce. No less fresh were the cubes of yellowtail ($7.95), capped with spicy jalapeno wheels and laid to rest on earthy tofu skins. Hamachi kama ($8.95), the broiled collar of the yellowtail, contains the most prized portions from the cheek, neck, and belly. We attacked the meaty bones with our chopsticks to the point where, as they say, a kitty would ignore it.
But mostly we stuck to nigiri — fish-topped rice. There were multiple varieties of yellowtail, including amberjack ($3), horse mackerel ($3.50), striped mackerel ($3.50), and, of course, hamachi ($2.75). They ranged in flavor from light and creamy to oily and rich. The tuna ($3) was wine-red and dense, a far cry from the artificially pink stuff peddled as "sushi-grade." And the sliced scallops ($2.75)? So supple and buttery, it would have been a crime to cook them.
Other plates contained expertly cut flanks of sea bream ($3.50), draped just so over a dollop of rice. Quivering balls of salmon roe ($2.50), bright orange and bursting with brininess, were held in place by their nori retaining wall. Giant clam ($3), one of the scariest creatures to be plucked from the sea, is also one of the sweetest and finest textured. Raw spot prawns ($3), lustrous and shimmering, are accompanied by their heads — split down the middle and deep-fried — as is customary.
I admit to going rogue, tacking on an order of shatteringly crisp shrimp tempura ($6.95) and grease-free gyoza (Japanese dumplings, $4.95) because, well, who can resist? We ignored 90 percent of the menu — the teriyaki, the noodles, even the rolls — because Liang-san did too. Of course, there were large bottles of Sapporo ($6.25) and overflowing cups of unfiltered sake ($9.95). Plum wine, compliments of the house, came with each check — which, considering the feasts, were remarkably low.
"Nobu quality at Wadsworth prices," is what the chef likes to say. And that's exactly what it is.
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