Wabi House, 1229 8th Av, Ste 227, FW. 817-720-3099. 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-12am Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
In Japanese, “wabi” refers to “quiet, sober refinement” offering up “subdued taste.” Fort Worth’s two-month-old Wabi House, a Dallas-based Japanese izakaya and the brainchild of Vietnamese-born chef-owner Dien Nguyen, manages to embody all these tiers of simple, yet refined, culinary pleasure –– while free of even a hint of snooty pretension.
First, you’ll learn to look up to Wabi House –– literally, as its second-floor location endows it with one of the area’s most interesting aeries on the Near Southside street bustle. As I sipped my hot sake, I took private inventory of the myriad ways Wabi House incorporated sleek and distressed wood (mostly cedar) into its décor – from the latticed slats fronting the entryway to the cedar stumps serving as stools for a communal table. A back wall effectively creates a Japanese streetscape where pagodas pierce the skyline. The 25-foot ceilings allow for a “second story” array of movie set-like curtained windows, as if the restaurant is a cozy ramen shop shoehorned into a teaming Japanese street.
Don’t fear the often-inherent lack of value in most “small plates,” as Wabi House’s reasonable pricing makes assembling four of them both affordable and shareable.
Sweet corn fritters were paragons of greaseless –– dare I suggest, healthful –– frying. Wearing a thin armor of tempura batter, the nubbins of corn, formed into patties, emerged from their soy frying oil in fine crunchy form and worked well with the first of several house spicy aiolis.
The name ebi chili could not obscure its irresistible use of fried shrimp –– with their heads and tails intact. The head carried all the saline, briny tastes of the sea. Beautifully crisp, the shrimp were adorned by a light Thai vinaigrette fish sauce bristling with Thai chiles and cooled by fresh mint, basil, and cilantro.
My small plate aquarium included “takoyaki” or octopus fritters. Though adeptly fried, these starters frankly could have been filled with any protein available, as the creamy diced octopus made precious little impression. What did impress me, however, were all the umami notes emerging from the fluttering shavings of bonito flakes, dots of ginger cream, and a lip-tingling garlic aioli.
My small plates culminated with maybe the best bar snack I’ve sampled, OK, outside of any serving of pork rinds. These crispy pork ears were totally irresistible. After four hours of careful braising, these julienned pig parts were dusted in a series of spices and tempura fried. All in all, pork rinds aside, I couldn’t think of a better partner for a cold brew.
The kitchen staffers at Wabi House are clearly yakitori shoguns. My beef tenderloin skewers were glazed with soy and imbued with a thrum of heat from emerald dots of soy-marinated wasabi.
The other yakitori-cooked dish of dark meat chicken meatballs (or “tsukune”) arrived to my table shaped like a breakfast sausage link. Its pedestrian appearance belied the sophisticated sous-vide and yakitori grilling preparations that imparted complex flavor.
Be forewarned not to wolf down too many small plates, as they were mere prelude to the star ramen bowl attractions. “Shoyu” was built around a chicken broth that took roughly four hours to conjure. The broth was a liquid foil for a collection of typical ramen accoutrements as bamboo, enoki mushrooms, crunchy scallions, and sesame seeds. Also, bobbing in the amber poultry broth like so many welcome interlopers were strips of pork belly.
And then came “tsukumen” ramen or one celebrating a pork broth that took Wabi House’s kitchen approximately eight hours to prepare. The salutary power of this broth –– derived from every part of the pig, plus an all-star roster of aromatics –– was almost transcendent. I lost all civil table manners and noisily slurped the noodles.
A magical alchemy ensued when I used this pork broth as a dipping vehicle for its accompaniments of wavy ramen noodles, a marinated “ajitama” egg, scallions, chile threads, and the gilding of the pork lily: apple-wood smoked bacon.
Despite downing close to a dozen dishes, I still had room for a raspberry and blackberry-adorned tapioca parfait.
That the tapioca parfait was dusted with a mysterious and delicious final touch – crushed pistachios – summed up the overt and hidden pleasures of this new arrival to the Near Southside dining scene. Like trying to decipher all the complexities of one of its ramen dishes, Wabi House seems destined to keep people returning to try and unravel its beguiling culinary origami.
Sweet corn fritters $6
Ebi chili $8
Crispy pork ear $6
Beef tenderloin yakitori $3
Tsukune (chicken meatball) yakitori $7
Shoyu (ramen) $11
Tsukumen (ramen) $11
Tapioca parfait $6