Eating out: Ace Wasabi

JAPAN CALLING: Ace Wasabi's Japan is more about fun and accessibility than rarefied indulgence.
JAPAN CALLING: Ace Wasabi's Japan is more about fun and accessibility than rarefied indulgence.

Hundreds of draped fairy lights twinkle on the ceiling above and dotted among them are huge light bulbs filled with plastic leaves and flowers.

We are sitting in what seems to be a conservatory tacked on the side of a beautiful old wooden building. You enter the restaurant, which lodges with the Charlotte Jane hotel in Merivale, under more fairy lights, beside a fountain.

High-end Japanese restaurants tend to favour a minimalist set-up that's elegantly focused, so possibly Ace Wasabi's drama is a clue that it's more about fun and accessibility than rarefied indulgence.

The menu is lengthy and chaotic, but having worked through the combinations and possibilities of the sushi, sashimi, tempura and teppanyaki, there's not much that pushes the boundaries. It's a big step up from food court sushi, but nowhere near the world of blowfish and million-dollar tuna.

We didn't fancy the metre- high flames and clanging steel-on-grill show of the teppanyaki bar, so were steered to a spot called "the kitchen and sushi bar area".

The wine list is limited and fits, along with the dessert lineup, on a three-sided laminated brochure that stands on the table. I chose a beer. The Ebisu recommended by the kimono-clad waitress easily outclassed a follow-up Asahi.

We love edamame beans and ordered the spicy version. These had a great chilli and garlic sauce but to mix the sauce and beans you needed to suck on the pods and/or your fingers. So we did. It worked, but it isn't pretty.

A sashimi entree featured slices of tarakihi and salmon and a lovely salad of carrot a la vermicelli, red onion and a tangy sesame-influenced sauce. The back-of-the-eyeball-fizzing wasabi reminds us how watered down food-court wasabi is. The raw tarakihi outclassed the salmon when dipped in the gingery soy sauce. Both were better than the chilled, marbled, barely seared beef slices in a beef salad.

You can have teppanyaki dishes delivered to your table (rather than fronting at the grill), so we called for The Last Samurai option of prawns, chicken and eye fillet. The dishes plus the accompanying fried rice, miso soup and sauteed vegetables were served a small plate at a time as they came off the hot grill in the distance.

Take away the show business, and teppanyaki is a somewhat limited technique. A quick blast on a flat grill will only take textures and your tastebuds so far, but the prawns were great, the soy-flavoured teriyaki thigh meat chicken was tender, the beef succulent and flavoured with sesame seeds, garlic and pepper.

A sushi Dragon Roll main was a showstopper in its own right. It had rice, king prawn, avocado and eel presented in a dramatic curve, prawn tails jutting out each side, drizzled in mayonnaise and a fairly nondescript soy- based "chef's" special sauce that wasn't nearly as spicy as promised.

This was somewhat overwhelming. But the lavishness and richness was satisfying in its own way and it was lovely to experience that extra dimension eel brings to a fish dish.

One of us abandoned the Japanese theme of the evening and chose the chocolate fondue. You dip thinly sliced fruits including banana, pineapple, kiwifruit and orange into a pot of melted chocolate kept hot over a candle. The sauce was velvety without being too rich. The Europhile was very happy.

My green tea cheesecake was an uneasy mix of cultures. It was green, but the flavour so subtle as to be missing.

Ace Wasabi's staff were friendly, the service was smooth and it was fun, if not fantastic.

Ace Wasabi

Where: 106 Papanui Rd, Merivale

Phone: 03 355 1028

When: dinner 5.30pm-10.30pm, 7 days

Who: Families, tourists, hot plate fans Cost: entrees o $19, mains to $90 (crayfish), desserts to $15

Upside: dramatic atmosphere

Downside: the wine list

Go again: Yes

The Press