Restaurant review: Get your sushi game on at Wasabi Tao
Get a taste of Wasabi Tao in downtown Des Moines.
- Flamboyant plating and bold flavors rule the day.
- Wasabi Tao embraces a “throw everything at the wall” aesthetic to their sushi.
- Bustling atmosphere and good service makes for a great group destination.
Wasabi Tao is a lively downtown space, tiny as it is, with a striking interior of deep blacks and reds, dragons and lamps. Whether or not you love it will probably depend more on what you want from it.
If you’re looking for an artful, nuanced approach to sushi and sashimi, with a focus on fresh, lightly or un-adorned fish, you may be in the wrong spot.
If you’re looking instead for flashy rolls, swimming in sauces, competing against one another for the title of Longest List of Ingredients, you’re in the right place.
The food at Wasabi Tao is often exceedingly fun, both in taste and presentation. We would invite you to appreciate the maximalist approach full of boisterous contrasts. There is sweet (oh yes, there is sweet) but there is spice and umami, too.
This is not a place that reveres its fish, lovingly carving thin slices and weaving them delicately on tender mounds of lightly packed rice. It’s a place where, surrounded by a psychedelic medley of sushi rolls, a chef hacks fruitlessly at a harlequin roll wreathed in tempura batter, his prodigious blade, dully bouncing time and again off the stout exterior.
If there’s a shorthand to the food, it lies in the humble edamame. Served with just a light sprinkling of salt, the Steamed Edamame ($4) appeared drab and overcooked, yet by texture were slightly crunchy and under. The same was true of the Spicy Edamame ($5.50), yet in that preparation we couldn’t stop coming back to it. It’s amazing what some garlic, butter, and togarashi shichimi (a Japanese spice mixture) can do.
Pork Gyoza ($5) is a favorite and here, well executed, decently crisped, tender, juicy. If you like gyoza in general, try these. Crispy Soft Shell Crab ($8) was served tonkatsu-style, breaded in panko and fried, which overwhelmed all flavor of the crab. It was well fried, and the tonkatsu sauces served alongside led me to believe they’d do well to offer a pork cutlet version.
The showstoppers, though, were in the cold appetizer and Signature Rolls sections of the menu. For better, and for worse.
Snow Beauty ($10) was a stunningly presented dish, paper-white tuna freckled with sear marks from a butane torch, the plate dappled with black and orange balls of tobiko, jalapeno, spicy tuna, and a spicy lychee miso sauce hiding underneath. The balance of flavors was great, and it might have been our favorite dish, were it not for the taste of unignited butane blanketing the dish like a layer of smog. Salmon Toro Tartar ($10) arrived in a ball of diced mango and salmon atop momiji pepper sauce (daikon radish with red chili with a yuzu miso). The mango played up the sweetness of the sauces and left the dish a bit one note, but it was fresh and we appreciated the brightness of the yuzu miso. Seared Pepper Tuna ($10) came with a nice crisp sear and raw interior, but the heavy ingredient set tasted confused. Tobiko and tempura flake were there for texture, but felt unnecessary given the sear, the wasabi sauce tasted washed out, and the attendant mixed green salad seemed an afterthought: a clump of leaves straight from the mesclun bag drowned in dressing.
The best were the two Signature Rolls we tried. The Miracle Roll ($15) came bathed in two sauces, one for each layer, which were (deep breath): shrimp tempura, spicy salmon, cucumber & cilantro wrapped in soy nori with spicy yellowtail, salmon, tuna, deep-fried potato, scallion and tobiko. It worked; the dense layers of fish swam together into a pleasing umami note, the veggies kept things fresh, the tempura and potato added richness and crunch. Wrap the whole thing in soy nori (instead of just the bottom half) and you’d have yourself a sushi burrito and the starting of a killer food truck.
Even better was the Paradise Roll ($15), spicy kani, shrimp tempura & avocado wrapped in soy nori with a spicy crunchy salmon ball on top, served with shiro miso sauce and yuzu spring mix. The yuzu dressing was delicious, but as with the seared tuna, there was just too much. The spicy crunchy salmon ball could be served by itself as an appetizer, and here, even if you don’t share a guilty pleasure for imitation crab, we think the spicy kani lent just the right amount of sweetness. Still, we wish they’d used the real stuff, but it’s not available as an option.
Of course, in the Sushi and Sashimi for 1 ($24), which was ordered when a query for an omakase meal was met with a blank stare, the fish needs to stand on its own, and perhaps just as important for good sushi, so does the rice (here, entirely forgettable). And while it too was beautifully plated, there’s a reason the crowds at Wasabi Tao gravitate to the more intensely flavored preparations. Only the tuna was outright unpleasant (it had a mealy texture), but none of the sashimi or sushi tasted especially bright or fresh. Whether that’s a sourcing or a timing issue, hard to say, but my favorite thing on the plate was the spicy tuna roll.
While we focused mostly on the raw fish dishes on our visits, we did try the Udon Noodle Soup with Shrimp ($13). The broth was on the sweet side, but rich, supple and deeply complex and satisfying. The noodles lacked a little texture, but we had no trouble slurping them up.
For drinks, the cold sake preparation in an elaborate glass decanter with a side well for ice was impressive, but the options for filling it were limited. The cocktail list was long on flavored vodkas and rums, so we passed with one exception: the Templeton Old Fashioned, which tasted only like its namesake rye, which isn’t a bad thing, but here the soda water thinned it out enough to lose the bitters and sugar.
The staff is friendly and attentive, adapting to our “order a little more … then a little more …” strategy with ease.
Wasabi Tao and its sibling restaurants are on the short list of places people go in Des Moines when they want an upscale sushi night (notably, without an extravagant price tag), and with good reason. It’s an engaging, energetic experience, as long as that’s your aim. You’ll likely be wowed by the appearance of one or more plates, the flavors piled as high as the layers on the sushi rolls. Order a bomber of Sapporo and dive in.
Critic's rating: 2 stars
Food: 2 stars
Ambiance: 2 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Price: $2.50 to $48
Address: 400 Walnut St, Des Moines
Recommended orders: Spicy Edamame, Pork Gyoza, Salmon Toro Tartar, Paradise Roll
Drinks: Beer, wine, sake, cocktails
- Mon-Thurs: 11:00–2:30, 4:00–10:00
- Friday: 11:00–2:30, 4:00–11:00
- Saturday: Noon–11:00
- Closed on Sundays
Wheelchair access: The restaurant is on one level and is wheelchair accessible.
Kid friendly? Boosters and high chairs available
Allergen friendly/Willing to accommodate vegetarians? Will accommodate adjustments upon request. No separate menu.
What the stars mean
4 stars: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.
3 stars: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.
2 stars: (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
1 star: (Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing back to. But, it might have something worth recommending: A view, a single dish, friendly service, lively scene.
No stars: (Poor) Below-average restaurant.