Bob Wasabi Kitchen: The Little Sushi Shop that Could
On 39th Street, Bob Wasabi shows its staying power.
It’s impossible to truly understand and appreciate the menu at Bob Wasabi Kitchen without knowing a little about the eponymous Bob himself.
Born Bob Shin some 65 years ago in Seoul, Korea, Shin has spent the last 40 years perfecting his sushi palate. Shin and his family emigrated from Korea to California in the ’60s, and since his first job in a kitchen at age 25, Shin has hopscotched around the United States: In 1980, he ran a fish stall in New York; in the ’90s, he owned a couple different restaurants in California (this was around the time when the Bento box was just catching on in the States). But despite all this, Bob Wasabi — which opened on 39th Street in Kansas City in November — is the first place Shin really considers his own. It’s the restaurant where Shin can focus entirely on sushi — in the company of his family.
“Bob’s always had that goal of having a family-owned business,” Esther Shin, one of Shin’s adult daughters — who works on the floor and shares front-of-house management duties with her older sister Tanya — tells me. “I think this place just happened at the right time. We were old enough, and we all decided to be a part of it, because that’s his ultimate dream — to be with his family, doing what we do best, which actually happens to be what he does best.”
Shin is indeed at his best behind the slender glass sushi bar at Bob Wasabi. He wears a butcher’s cap and white chef’s coat, smiling frequently as he methodically slices his fish. There is no better seat in the house than at the end of his sushi bar, right in front of the action. From this spot, you’ve got all Bob Wasabi’s menu in plain view: ruby-red tuna steaks, pale pink chunks of yellowtail, massive spirals of octopus tentacles.
There are plenty of people who will scoff at the idea of authentic sushi in the Midwest, but as Esther Shin explained, there’s no reason for the disdain.
“The transportation system for fish is so advanced,” she says. “It’s the same as being on the coast. It’s just a matter of getting it locally, and where you’re getting it from and who the supplier is. I have a customer that lives in San Francisco part of the time and would never eat anything out of the Bay Area, so it depends on who’s handling it and how it’s coming in.”
It’s also a matter of how it’s prepared, and at Bob Wasabi, the fish — which is delivered whole — is prepared as soon as it comes through the restaurant doors (often, Esther Shin says, the same fish is prepared a variety of different ways). It also means that Bob Shin is uncompromising on quality: There’s not a single cut in his case that he hasn’t personally inspected and approved, and nothing remains in the case past its prime — which is often no more than a single day.
“Bob’s been in the seafood industry for so long,” Esther Shin says, “and he does his research. He knows how to look at a fish and tell its health, and that’s why he’s able to maintain fresh fish and keep it so fresh.”
The Shins’ devotion to quality sushi, sashimi and nigiri means there’s less of an emphasis on kitchen items. There are a few dishes to placate the odd guest who prefers their meal hot: eggrolls, pork or shrimp dumplings, hamachi kama (a broiled yellowtail collar entree with sushi rice and miso soup), or a bowl of udon noodle soup. But Esther Shin considers the entire menu spartan — and, compared to some sushi restaurants with dozens of different sushi rolls to choose from, Bob Wasabi’s 10 specialty rolls plus nigiri appears relatively dressed-down.
“I think people are appreciating that,” Esther Shin says. “Sometimes, you go into a restaurant, and there are booklets. With our menu, it’s easy to navigate — especially for people who don’t really know sushi. And people who are already connoisseurs, it’s nice and simple. Those people know what they’re looking for, and hopefully, that’s what we’re giving them.”
I am not exactly a sushi connoisseur (though I have had more than my fair share of supermarket Philly rolls, I’ll admit that). Thankfully, when I ventured in for dinner one weeknight with a group of friends, one of the servers was able to guide us through our choices. At her recommendation, we narrowed our sushi roll selection down to two of Bob Wasabi’s specialties: the TNT roll and the rainbow roll.
TNT roll (left) and Rainbow Roll (right)
These two beauties arrived side-by-side, veritable art presented on a bamboo board. The eight-piece rainbow roll is essentially a California roll (kani salad — shredded crab meat — with avocado enclosed in rice) and topped with tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail) and avocado.
The pleasure of these fresh, clean mouthfuls was challenged by the positively sinful TNT roll, which featured a mix of spicy tuna, spicy salmon and spicy hamachi inside of rice and wrapped in seaweed. That roll gets a light tempura batter and is flash fried, then topped with spicy mayo, Sriracha and a tangy eel sauce. Each piece from the TNT roll was one perfectly composed bite, an ideal iteration of flavors that stopped just short of being too much, too over-the-top, all at once.
Nothing else we ordered that evening would be quite as extravagant as the sushi rolls, but there were other delights to be had. The two entree-style dishes we ordered came with cups of miso soup — five perfect-temperature spoonfuls that encouraged the palate. The seaweed salad, too, was excellent, pleasantly chewy and bright.
The spicy fish bowl was a layered masterpiece: plump, steaming sushi rice on the bottom, then fresh-chopped cabbage, then generous chunks of salmon, tuna and octopus. Shin’s spicy sauce — a thick, sticky-looking, mahogany-colored substance — is drizzled over the top, then strips of cucumber and micro-greens with a neon orange fish egg topping. Our server delivered this dish with long spoons and instructed us to put down our chopsticks.
This would all be rather innocuous were it not for that sauce: tangy and robust — like soy and horseradish had a beautiful, delicious liquid baby — that element delivered a lingering (and, for one of my dining companions, tear-jerking) heat. While my friend dabbed her eyes and declined a second bite, I rejoiced: Finally, a “spicy” dish that lived up to its promise!
Seaweed Salad (Left) and Spicy fish bowl (right)
The chirashi — which our server described as a bowl of “deconstructed nigiri” — manifested in ruby-red tuna, flesh-pink salmon and pale green wheels of cucumber. These were primary color-coded building blocks for the sashimi novice: white, stretchy-looking strips of squid and octopus languished next to cuts of yellowtail, chopped spicy tuna and surf clams, along with triangles of a sweet egg cake, all over a bed of sushi rice. There were infinite valleys and peaks in this sculpted bowl: It was a Sesshu Toyo painting come to life, almost too pretty to eat.
I enjoyed the octopus — not as chewy as I expected it would be, and rather mild in taste — and the spicy tuna had a pleasant flavoring that was nice to have next to so much naked fish, but the maguro (tuna) was breathtaking. Tuna is one of the most basic, universal and oldest sushi ingredients, and Shin takes that legacy seriously: These steaks were cut fat and generous, the pieces almost too big to swallow in one bite.
I wondered if I was tasting what Shin saw when he examined this fish, as he does every fish that is delivered to his shop, before deeming it worthy of his case. His daughters say Bob Shin can tell the age and pedigree of a fish just by looking at it; he knows fish as well as he knows his family. I don’t know that I felt the whole backstory of this tuna the moment its robust flesh hit my tongue, but I did feel a connection with Shin.
Our server had felt that two specialty rolls, the spicy fish bowl and the chirashi would be sufficient for the three of us, and while I was initially dubious — there was so much to try! — I was grateful for her guidance by the end of the meal. I remember what Esther Shin said, about the perceived lack of variety at Bob Wasabi, but a tour through the menu finds far more options than I know what to do with. Where else in Kansas City can I find geoduck (large saltwater clams), mackerel and West Coast sea urchin on the menu?
Perhaps the single greatest thing about the menu at Bob Wasabi is that it doesn’t try harder than it needs to. There is little pomp and circumstance; the restaurant decor is cozy (photos of a proud Bob Shin line the walls on your walk to the restroom) and the drink list is minimal (a handful of sake options and just one beer option: Sapporo tallboys). The emphasis here is on the sushi, and by extension, Bob himself.
I went back to Bob Wasabi a few days after my big sushi blowout. I went for lunch, alone; I sat at the bar, right in front of Bob Shin — who always works the same station, who never relinquishes his post, not as long as the restaurant is open — and watched him quietly work. He recognized me, I could tell, but it wasn’t until I ordered the toro nigiri (tuna belly) — a market-price special, and one of the rarest cuts — that he really started to like me. That was one of his favorite cuts, Tanya Shin told me: “It’s so smooth it practically melts on your tongue.” It was $20 for two pieces — which, when you’re talking nigiri, is two bites.
The toro was the polar opposite of the maguro: It looked like it came from an entirely different species. Instead of the deep garnet, the toro was a baby pink color; it arrived in two thin strips on top of rice as opposed to a hefty cut. It looked wet, with a pearly sheen to it that made it seem precious.
The toro was unlike anything I’d had. It was slippery, buttery even — it slid down my throat almost before I could register the purity of its flavor.
“Do you like it?” Bob Shin asked me, peering over the countertop at me. I could hardly articulate my pleasure. He smiled.
At the other end of the sushi bar, a man sat down, and Tanya Shin recited his usual: Would he be changing it up today? No, he would not. He began talking to the sous chef, Frans Ham, about grouper. If he brought in some grouper for the kitchen, would the staff eat it? Oh, well, of course they would. Shin asked me if I lived in Kansas City — it seems that his little shop attracts plenty of people who do not — and I heard about how he misses the beauty of Maui, Hawaii, but not the sticky weather.
I watched my fellow lunch patrons filter in and out of the restaurant, until finally, it was my turn to leave. Shin was placing plastic wrap on the fish in his cases; he would revisit them again in a few hours, when the restaurant reopened for dinner.
“Tonight’s going to be busy,” he said, looking out at the dining room. “Very busy.”
Yes, Bob, I have no doubt it will be.
Bob Wasabi is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. 1726 W. 39th St, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 753-5797, bobwasabikitchen39.com