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Beauty Beheld

Wabi-Sabi finds its groove in Petersburg.

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Until the capital city gets such a restaurant — and it undoubtedly would succeed here — it's worth the drive to sample what you're missing.

Sure, every supermarket in town has a sushi stand, but it's the add-ons — the fusion — that make Wabi-Sabi a special place.

There's no show of flying knives or requirement to sit cross-legged on the floor, just innovative, first-rate food with an Asian accent.

For starters, there is the expected wide variety of raw fish appetizers, prepared by a young Japanese sushi chef whose work, differentiated by size, is visible behind and above a seated counter. Nigiri means two pieces on a rice ball; sashimi, four slices; maki, six pieces; and meal-sized platters and combos. Each is accompanied by wasabi, the fiery green Japanese horseradish, and soy sauce. The price range is $3.25 to $20.

After you've quenched the heat with an appropriate beverage, I suggest you move on to one of the best appetizers I've encountered lately. It's called Pots of Gold and consists of four wontons the size of sand dollars, deep fried and filled with ginger cheese. They're incredibly light and airy, and when dipped into one of two accompanying sauces — a plum sauce of marmalade consistency or a chunky ponzu of spicy soy - they leave your taste buds floating in freshness.

Entrees, between $15 and $23, are heavily tilted toward seafood (ahi tuna, crab cakes, mahi-mahi and scallops) or specials, such as a circular concoction of portobello mushroom stuffed with crab (although precious little of the latter) sitting on coconut-ginger jasmine rice.

Meat lovers need not fret. They will be pleasantly rewarded with the toppings of homemade fruit chutney (a tribute to Mark's Indian stepfather) and, in the case of fresh-cut Angus beef, rubbed with tea and a five-spice blend. A side of mashed potatoes contains just a hint of wasabi, toned down at the suggestion of spice-challenged customers.

The Indian influence also is evident in the breast of chicken, which is marinated in a spicy tikka sauce.

Vegetarians can make a meal of Vietnamese summer rolls and salads featuring snap peas and oranges, sweet pink grapefruit or cucumbers.

There's even a sushi for kids: peanut butter and jelly rolled up in flattened bread.

None of the desserts is made in-house, but a couple of the ice cream flavors, such as red beans and green tea, come from the same supplier as the fish, and arrive in an edible shell with an assortment of berries.

Lunch ($7 to $11.50 entrees) offers several stir-fries, including mango chicken and coconut shrimp; soups, including soybean-based miso; and burgers and other sandwiches. A pan-fried crab cake was a bit gooey and lacking in the baked, filler-free backfin of the evening versions, while a white-meat chicken salad was freshened with herbs and bits of grape and apple.

Wabi-Sabi occupies the bottom floor and basement of the Nathaniel Friend House — a handsome, three-story brick building, circa 1816, whose renovation by the Sprenkles has contributed to the continuing renaissance of one of Virginia's historic towns.

The first-floor dining room sports a minimalist atmosphere with exposed pipes, wooden floors and booths, and an elevated kitchen where head cook Michael Spencer and his assistants work in front of a gleaming stainless-steel backdrop.

The walls are brightened by oversized paintings of fish by Brian Lynch, and the front window displays ceramics from an upstairs art gallery operated by Mark's mother.

There are two rooms on the cellar level, one with a bar and large tables, which is filled communally with regulars for after-work drinking, and another that features dart tournaments on Tuesday nights, bluegrass music on Wednesdays and jazz on Thursdays.

The most talked-about architectural feature of the smoke-free Wabi-Sabi is an elevator-sized cage beneath the front sidewalk that is visible to pedestrians; passersby can wave through the grill to the quarantined tobacco addicts below. S



Wabi-Sabi
($$$)

29 Bollingbrook St., Petersburg
862-1365
www.eatwabisabi.com
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.




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