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Seeking out the best bites for under $15 a head.

Apps Only: Japanese Dishes, Local Bent at Wasan in the East Village

Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner eats his way through New York's appetizer menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Cold cheese tofu from Wasan. [Photographs: Ben Fishner]

The first thing I ate at Wasan was Cold Cheese Tofu ($5), a mysterious little dish, a 2" by 2" square of fresh, quivering tofu served in a shallow moat of dashi and topped with red tomato jelly and three meticulously placed slices of asparagus, looking quite literally like an accent. It looks like plain tofu, but on first bite, there it is: cheesiness. Not the complex fermented taste of stinky tofu, mind you, but full on cheesiness, like your standard American cheese slice.

Taken with the smoky, almost ham-like dashi and the bright, fresh tomato jelly, the flavors work together at some sort of deli sandwich level, as one dining companion pointed out. This tofu is the ham, American cheese and tomato on a roll from the corner deli, filtered through the prism of an exacting Japanese kitchen in the East Village.

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Deep fried tomato with dashi stock.

And that's more or less what we got at Wasan. It's a Japanese restaurant, but you can dispatch with any notions of the sickly sweet teriyaki and tough beef negimaki that you might see at other Japanese restaurants in the neighborhood. At Wasan the menu is Japanese in its diligent attention to detail (the menu proclaims that a fluke dish is "boiled for 2.5 seconds"), but focused on using local ingredients to create the sort of seasonal dishes that are all over NYC's menus these days. What you end up with is something completely different, and delicious.

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Eggplant with garlic sauce.

Eggplant with Garlic Sauce ($6) was perfectly cooked just shy of the line between tender and mushy, and intricately scored so that the deep, dark, teriyaki-like garlic sauce could penetrate the flesh of the vegetable. Atop the eggplant were the most artfully sliced scallion whites I've ever seen and two perfect leaves of baby arugula.

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Japanese style egg omelet.

I have had Japanese egg omelets before, but none of them looked like Wasan's Japanese Style Egg Omelet ($6), a simple, perfect rectangle of egg and dashi, which our server told us has as much dashi as it could handle while still holding its shape. The result is a light, sweet, complex egg dish that's still subtle, served with grated daikon soaked with a bit of soy sauce.

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Shrimp tortilla.

Tortilla chips aren't necesarily a local ingredient, but they certainly fall into the category of Things You Don't Usually See In A Japanese Restaurant. That's part of the charm of Shrimp Tortilla ($9), tempura-style shrimp that are coated with broken bits of corn chips and then fried into greaseless, crisp, tender crust. They come served alongside a creamy cilantro sauce and a spicy, mayo-based sauce that complimented the crunchy chip shrapnel without taking the dish too far in a silly Tex-Mex direction. I have met many fried shrimp appetizers in my day, and I like almost all of them, but this is one I love.

Deep-Fried Tomato with Dashi Stock ($7) was coated in a more traditional tempura batter, but was just as surprising a dish. A big, juicy tomato gets quartered, coated in tempura batter, and fried until the tomato is just starting to soften and the crust is crisp and airy. This dish is served with small bowls to catch the sweet tomato juice that blends with the slightly fishy, salty dashi. Tempura is light as far as deep fried foods go, but it's rarely as refreshing as this dish.

Everything we ate at Wasan was not only delicious, but thought-provoking, and there's plenty else on the menu that I'd like to try on return visits: foie gras sushi, shrimp bun with tartar sauce, that flash-boiled fluke. And this is all to say nothing of the sashimi menu and the seasonal five-course tasting menu. Wasan is a great place for a reasonably priced meal of shared small plates, but I warn you: it'll be hard to stop there.

Wasan

108 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003 (map)
212-777-1978
wasan-ny.com

About the author: Ben Fishner is Serious Eats' advertising operations administrator, and he is currently planning his next meal. In addition to writing for Serious Eats, he blogs at Ben Cooks Everything. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr, won't you?

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