The atmosphere at Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill can feel like a gathering of family and friends.
Diners are greeted with a smile, and customers who have not seen each other in awhile often stop to share a hug or quick chat. Servers spend the time explaining the lengthy menu to newcomers, and make suggestions about the special to returning guests.
Paula Greenstein, Wasabi’s owner, enjoys seeing customers who haven’t seen each other in awhile leave their table to visit with those at another table. She often stops to chat with guests asking how they like the food or offering to pour a tasting of sake.
“People come here for birthdays and anniversaries,” she said. “We have people who come down from Canada who it’s their tradition to eat here on Christmas Eve. We want to go above and beyond to be welcoming and do what we can for our customers.”
Attention to the customers has always been the culture at Wasabi, and it’s likely one of the reasons, in addition to the creative menu of sushi and grilled options, the restaurant has remained popular with locals while also becoming a destination restaurant for some who travel thousands of miles just to eat at the restaurant once a year.
Wasabi in December celebrates its 20th anniversary in business. It will host a thank you celebration to the community with an open house on Sunday, Dec. 1 from 5-7 p.m.
Both innovation and simplicity seem to coexist on the menu with tradition and local flavors. The Tai Nigiri is two slices of red snapper placed out on pressed rice. The sushi fusion rolls list includes selections like the Montana Roll with smoked rainbow trout, tamago, scallions, cucumber, chives and masago.
Though popular, Wasabi still today remains a surprise to many as a sushi restaurant in Montana.
When Scott and Kerry Nagel opened the restaurant on East Second Street, converting what had been office space, into a restaurant they were well aware they were embarking on new territory. Scott at the time was working at Whitefish Lake Restaurant where one night per week they tried serving sushi to bring in new customers and found it to be very successful. And when a few other restaurants in the Flathead Valley at the time were also serving sushi on a limited basis, Scott saw it has an opportunity.
“I think it’s time for a sushi bar,” he recalled saying at the time, returning last week for a visit to Wasabi.
But they weren’t without skeptics -- they had to convince the bank to give them a loan putting up their house as collateral.
“I’d be outside painting the building and people would drive by telling me I think you’re crazy or they’d yell good for you,” Scott recalled. “It was about a 50-50 split.”
Their leap and hard work paid off when they opened right before Christmas. They remodeled the building, even purchasing a large Godzilla toy from Imagination Station that still remains displayed in the restaurant.
“We were packed from day one,” Scott said.
“We had no idea it would be so crazy,” Kerry added.
Kerry set the standard by creating a family culture for the staff — she still calls current and former employees the Wasabi alum — and making sure that customers were part of the extended family. She even set up, along with the hostesses, an extensive Rolodex of customers names listed with their favorite dishes.
Greenstein purchased Wasabi in 2008, along with her sister. She had previously eaten at the restaurant while vacationing, and then later after moving here she heard the restaurant was for sale. She worried if the right buyer didn’t come along where she would eat. The Nagels weren’t willing to sell to just anyone, and what they found in Greenstein was a new owner who could carry on their vision.
“They had a great thing from the beginning,” Greenstein said. “I only modified it rather than change it.”
Head chef Jacob Hausauer recently took over running the kitchen. He spent five years training under Phil Viliar, who had been with Wasabi since the beginning.
An extensive traveler, Greenstein is always returning with a new idea for what’s popular in sushi around the world and she says Hausauer leads the kitchen in trying out hers and other new ideas to incorporate alongside the long-time favorites at Wasabi.
“I always tell the staff if you put love in to your work that permeates the food and people can feel it,” she said.
One area of passion for Greenstein has been to introduce a lengthy list to the menu of sake, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. She also introduced a gluten free menu and made sure their is a variety of vegetarian dishes on the menu. Adding a grill menu was a way to make sure sushi fans could bring along a spouse or a friend who may want to order steak or chicken from the grill.
Greenstein says Wasabi also remains unique for a sushi restaurant in that while typically a customer can ask for an ingredient to be left off, Wasabi allows customers to add items to their sushi roll.
“That’s a huge deal and it takes little bit longer,” she said. “But that attention to detail is remarkable and that’s the level of attention we want to give to our customers.”
Wasabi is located at 419 Second Street East in downtown Whitefish and is open nightly depending on the season at 5 p.m. for dinner. For more information, call 863-9283 or visit www.wasabimt.com.