Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bistro Wasabi

3150 Chappel Dr., Perrysburg, OH 43551 (Levis Commons)

***** - Five Stars (out of 5)

If I had to review Bistro Wasabi in only one word, that word would be "fresh".

For a sushi place, that's really all you need to know.

Bistro Wasabi is a strong contender for the title of Best Sushi in Toledo. Indeed, one could imagine another restaurant having as good sushi, but it's difficult to imagine any better. And the key, again, is freshness. All of the fish tastes as if it has just been pulled from the water (or, more likely, the airplane). Even though Bistro Wasabi is located in the soulless Levis Commons, from the quality of the fish, you would not know that you were not in New York or Los Angeles.

To fully appreciate the quality of the fish, be sure to include both the tuna and white tuna nigiri or sashimi (raw fish, with and without rice, respectively). The traditional (bluefin) tuna has a healthy red color and a smooth, mild taste. The white tuna (albacore) is rich and buttery, and is accented with lovely brown stripes, the product of a few seconds' searing of the outside that provides a wonderful contrast between the cooked outer layer and the raw inside of the fillet. The cooked eel, which comes with a sweet teriyaki sauce, is also consistently terrific.

Wasabi also provides a varied and creative selection of maki (rolls). The only problem is that, in addition to old standbyes (like Tuna, Spicy Tuna, and Spicy Salmon), many of them have whimsical names -- Superman presumably refers to the red and white tuna sashimi wrap (around shrimp and avocado) that evokes the iconic superhero's cape -- that are not explained on the menu. However, the waitstaff is knowledgeable and patient and walked us through at least half a dozen options. Their best seller is the Hot N Sexy roll, which contains shrimp tempura and cucumber inside, a spicy crab mix on the outside, a sweet teriyaki sauce, and is seared with a kitchen torch (which explains at least part of the name). The roll can be quite good, although on one occasion they slightly overdid the torch, giving the roll a faint smoky, almost burnt, taste. The Dragon roll is similar, if perhaps not as "sexy" -- it contains shrimp tempura and cucumber on the inside and eel, avocado, and sweet teriyaki sauce on the outside -- and is a consistent winner. We passed on Superman, but wanted to try its spicy garlic topping, and the waitstaff obligingly allowed us to have the topping with the Spider (soft shell crab) roll. The Spider was tasty, although the softshell crab was supplemented with imitation crab meat, and I'm afraid the spicy garlic sauce was more like spicy Thousand Island. If you want to try something unusual, consider the Grinch -- eel tempura, avocado, cucumber, masago (smelt roe), tamago (egg), and cream cheese, wrapped in rice paper and served with sweet sauce -- either with dinner or for dessert.

If you have a big appetite, try the calamari tempura appetizer, which is unlike any fried calamari you have had, and better than most. The gyoza have a fairly standard pork filling and nice thin skins, though they are deep-fried, while I think pan-frying would work better. The shredded seaweed salad is terrific, combining a mild, toothsome seaweed that's not too fishy with cucumbers and sweet red onions, tossed in a perfectly balanced sweet-salty sesame dressing.

Despite being primarily a sushi restaurant, Bistro Wasabi claims to have the "best steak in town". I haven't tested that claim, but given the restaurant's high overall quality, it's worth a try if you're in the mood for meat.

Like the fish, the decor -- which is sleek, modern, and nearly monochromatic -- and the drink menu -- which is filled with drinks like the delicious Cosmo Bistro (a lovely pale green melon concoction) and the Watermelon Martini (basically, liquified Jolly Rancher) -- seem like they would be more at home in LA than in Northwest Ohio.

Despite occasional glitches, Bistro Wasabi is clearly near or at the top of Japanese dining -- indeed, of dining, period -- in the Toledo area. While you can easily spend over $100 on dinner for two there, I am not docking it any stars for price, because getting high-quality fresh fish in Toledo cannot be cheap, and I for one am glad they have kept their eye on quality.

On the web:

Official Site

Glass City Gourmet

Toledo City Paper

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Jewel

6711 Airport Highway, Holland, Ohio 4528

***** - Five Stars (out of 5)

Indian restaurants in the United States tend to fall into one of four main categories. The largest category serves a pan-Indian cuisine that, while not associated with any particular region of India, has become the de facto standard — samosas, chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo, etc. The next largest, and growing, category is the first category’s poor relation — pan-Indian food as fast food. The third category, high-end, creative Indian food, sometimes focusing on a particular region, is also growing, but remains a small segment of the market, primarily focused in a few major urban areas. The fourth is vegetarian.

The Jewel is an exquisite example of the first category. It follows the standard form of an American Indian restaurant, and it does it very, very well. The lamb masala (prepared the same as the chicken tikka masala) is excellent. It omits the large dose of cream that carries most masalas (and makes it a guilty pleasure), but replaces it with a rich, flavorful sauce that is every bit as satisfying. The lamb itself is both tender and flavorful, while the peas maintain a toothsomeness that conveys the freshness of the preparation. The baigan aloo — a vegetarian dish of eggplant and potato — is also fresh and rich, with the soulful taste of roasted eggplant coming through. (The waitress helpfully recommended this dish over the baigan bhartha, a roasted eggplant preparation with a different sauce.)

A highlight of the meal is the Indian breads — order at least one, preferably two. Both the poori and garlic nan are excellent. Samosas, a standard appetizer, vary little from other Indian restaurants, although they are perhaps a bit less doughy than some, and come with a pleasant, though not challenging green sauce. The aloo poori appetizer, however, is quite interesting — a salad of crispy flour chips (a bit like the fried noodles sometimes placed on the table in Chinese restaurants), “ceci beans” (chick peas), and potatoes, with a yogurt-mango dressing that is simultaneously tangy and fruity. (Dinner also includes a fairly ordinary green salad and papadoms.)

Like the food, the decor is Indian restaurant standard, but nicely done, with a few Indian statues scattered throughout. (The outside is thoroughly nondescript, as suggested by the Airport Highway locale.) The chairs are unusual for a restaurant, as they are annoyingly low and on wheels, but they do seem well made and would actually be quite comfortable but for their height.

Service was pleasant and, as noted, helpful. I am aware of complaints concerning slow service, but this was not a problem when we were there (although the restaurant was not crowded).

Finally, there’s the cost. Two appetizers, two main courses, two extra breads, two extra side dishes (raitha (yogurt dip) and mango pickle), and two sodas came to only about $43, plus tip, and left large quantities of leftovers for tomorrow. A frugal couple could easily have an excellent $30 dinner by avoiding some of the accoutrements. Just as Mancy’s Bluewater was downgraded a star for being too expensive for what it is, the Jewel is awarded an extra star for being an excellent value. I’d come back, and give it four stars, even if it cost 50% more — or more — but the Jewel as it is is a true, five-star jewel.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Budapest Restaurant

3314 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio

**** - Four Stars (out of 5)

Budapest Restaurant is like a beautiful insect, frozen in amber and preserved for us to enjoy long after its natural lifespan has expired. While I could praise it as an unpretentious masterpiece of comfort food — indeed, it is veritable black hole of pretension, a place where the airs put on by modern restaurants come to die — it is more accurate to describe it as a museum to kind of restaurant, and to a Toledo, that no longer exists. Its decor is that of a simple luncheonette, with a plain floor and fake wood-paneled walls adorned with illustrations of horses interspersed with occasional Christian imagery. Most of the patrons are of an older generation, although the restaurant is child friendly, both in temperament and selection. Service is polite and friendly and, again, just slightly old-fashioned.

Nearly 50 years old after its founding in 1959, Budapest continues to serve simple, well-made Hungarian food at a good price. The food is lightly seasoned and (unlike most restaurants today) lightly salted, but filling and delicious. Both the chicken and veal paprikas come piled high as undifferentiated mounds of meat, flour dumplings, and mashed potatoes, covered with voluminous paprikas gravy. Don’t be put off by the appearance. The meat (whether chicken or veal) is so tender that it will dissolve in your mouth, while the dumplings are perfectly chewy and delicious. Do note, though, that despite the name of the dishes, the seasoning is quite mild, with only a hint of paprika, but you can ask for either powdered or hot paprika to spice it up. If you like spicy food, I highly recommend the bottled hot paprika, which tastes surprisingly like this Vietnamese hot sauce. The stuffed cabbage comes with a similar presentation, with the centerpiece cabbage rolls filled with tender ground meat. Here, the lack of salt may be a bit much, as you will probably find that the cabbage rolls need a dash of salt. The beef goulash is similar to a Western beef stew — and is your best bet for vegetables (carrots) at Budapest (other than the small iceberg salads they bring out with sliced white bread at the beginning of the meal) — but has a rich beefy flavor and the tender meat that is a Budapest signature. And don’t worry, you still get the dumplings, potatoes, and gravy, but now it’s on a side plate.

Whatever you do, don’t omit desert at Budapest. Selections vary by day, but the Hungarian crepes, filled with jam or cheese are absolutely delicious — if you try to share, you may find yourselves fighting over the last bites. (The strudel appeared similarly appealing, but I have not tried it.) The pies are also quite good — they come from Toledo’s Strachn Bakery (as does the white bread) and seem more like homemade than most restaurant pies — but I’d recommend going for Budapest’s own crepes or strudel, unless you have a big enough group to try a little of everything.

Dinner for two, with desert, will probably run under $40 (less if you have one of the coupons available in local papers). Special lunch pricing would allow you to sample Budapest for about half of that.

Budapest Official Website: Are you kidding?

Elsewhere on the Web:

Tech Experts Blog Review
Independent Collegian Review

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Beirut

4082 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio

**** - Four Stars (out of 5)

One can’t call The Beirut a hidden gem, as it is one of Toledo’s most popular and well established restaurants, having opened in 1977.

But it is a gem nonetheless. The Beirut serves excellent, authentic Lebanese food in a friendly atmosphere.

As with many Middle Eastern restaurants, appetizers are a highlight of the meal. The pita bread is fresh and warm, and still puffy from the oven. The baba ghannouj is delicious, nicely balancing the smoky flavor of roasted eggplant with smooth tahini and the more piquant flavors of lemon juice and garlic. Hommos, leban (thickened yogurt), stuffed grape leaves, and the house salad are also excellent choices.

And then there are the lamb chops. Do not go to The Beirut without trying the lamb chops. Tucked modestly at the bottom of the menu, ambiguously unclear whether they are offered as an appetizer or a main course, The Beirut’s lamb chops are tender, flavorful, and perfectly seasoned — and served practically still sizzling. Four makes a wonderful appetizer, but I prefer eight as a main course — at about $10 and $19, respectively, either is a bargain given the high quality of the meat.

Other main courses include a variety of Lebanese entrees, with an emphasis on grilled meat. The kibbi (like a Middle Eastern meatloaf) is also quite good and has a perfectly subtle undertone of mint. The baked version can be a bit dry, however, so you may want to go for fried kibbi, or, if you’re health conscious, to juice it up with a side order of leban.

I do have a few quibbles: The sauteed shrimp is well flavored and nicely served on seasoned rice, but the shrimps themselves are mealy, lacking the toothsome quality of good, fresh shrimp. The kafta (seasoned ground meat) was overwhelmed with a bitter taste of onion, the result of combining the meat and onion before cooking, rather than cooking the onion first. The method is authentic, but can bring out the worst in a less-than-sweet onion. The shawarma (marinated chicken or beef) is pleasant enough, but the omission of lamb shawarma is regrettable.

And then there’s the Italian food. It’s fine. My 11-year-old loves the pizza and ravioli. But, honestly, it’s unambitious “red sauce” Italian that, I have to assume, is on the menu because Lebanese food was quite unfamiliar to many people when The Beirut opened. It’s a detour, not a destination.

Finally, The Beirut performs well on the non-food aspects of dinner. The service is consistently friendly — including child friendly — but the dark, well-decorated dining room would also work well for a romantic dinner for two. The prices are quite reasonable — dinner for two (including appetizers) will probably run about $50. But do consider reservations, as The Beirut is justifiably popular.

The Beirut Official Site (warning: music plays if you launch the site)

Elsewhere in the Blogosphere:

Luna Pier Cook

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mancy’s Bluewater Grille

461 West Dussel Drive, Maumee, Ohio

** - Two Stars (out of 5)

Almost. Mancy’s almost has it — but with fish, almost is not good enough.

On the surface, everything is just right at Mancy’s. The dining room is dark and tasteful, if a tad dull, the tables are filled with well-dressed, convivial patrons, and the mun promises the freshest of everything — freshly baked bread and, most important, fresh fish flown in within 24 hours. The menu conveys confidence in the excellence of Mancy’s ingredients. The staff oozes enthusiasm for service and for the food.

But dig a bit deeper, and instead of “fresh”, I’d say “fresh enough”. The seafood may be less than 24 hours old, but not by a lot. The raw oyster sampler — four different kinds — is acceptable, but there’s not a single smooth, mild oyster in the bunch; each has an undertone of the sea that’s just a bit too strong. The fried calamari is more soggy than crispy, and the Chinese-inspired sauce is sickly salty-sweet, rather than fresh and interesting. In fact, cloying, too salty flavoring is a constant issue — the Caesar salad is drowned in dressing that, while not bottled, is salty and overpowering; the grilled Chilean Sea Bass is a nice piece of fish, but the seasoned side of it conveys an “off” feeling, and the tuna, while mostly pleasant, also has a slight hint of just becoming too fishy — not way too old, but a few hours too old.

The seafood is entirely edible at Mancy’s, but don’t expect fresh seafood of the kind you’d find in New York or Los Angeles, or even inland in Chicago. You won’t be embarrassed if you take someone there — so long as you don’t promise too much. I’d give it three stars, but for $110 for two (including one alcoholic beverage, appetizers, and tip), you deserve more.

Official Site

Elsewhere in the Blogosphere:

Toledo Restaurant Reviews
Josh Woodward
Live Vicariously

Friday, February 1, 2008

Mission Statement

This blog is the journal of a transplanted New Yorker who seeks culinary satisfaction in Northwest Ohio. Yes, I know that’s not fair to Toledo, but so what? I believe that there are hidden food gems here. This blog will test that hypothesis.

[Note: This blog was original started on Wordpress, but has been transferred to Blogger due to Wordpress's absolutely annoying "upgrade".]

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