This article appears in the March 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
When Wild Ginger Sushi Bistro opened just a few doors from Sapporo Japanese Steakhouse in October 2010, some questioned whether that Highlands stretch of Bardstown Road could support another sushi-centered restaurant. Wild Ginger co-owner Robert Wang, a local real estate broker, not only believed his Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese fusion spot would be different enough from its neighbor; he thought that demand for Asian food in the area was underserved. Now, after recent visits to Wild Ginger, I’m betting he is right.
Aside from the well-known hand-painted mural along the Duker Avenue exterior of the building, there’s little evidence this place housed Cafe Metro for 25 years. Gone is that restaurant’s piano lounge, replaced by a lengthy and sleek sushi bar. And in the very back room that once held hundreds of bottles of wine, the shelves now display dozens of porcelain Buddha, geisha and feline figurines arranged so purposefully they reminded me of a formation of Chinese terra-cotta warriors.
Food and service here are managed with similar precision. A crispy toro roll may have been the most beautiful and delicious maki ever to cross my lips. Its center was a blend of toro (tuna’s fatty underbelly), bluefin tuna and conch, while its white rice exterior was draped in daikon slivers, pinches of neon-green wasabi-infused flying-fish roe (which popped with every chew) and a drizzle of a ponzu-style sauce. Yes, $18 is more than I typically pay for a single roll, but this one was worth it. Sadly, for the tasty, garlicky baked green mussels I next sampled ($6), the toro roll was too good an act to follow.
My guest and I then shared two entrées, the Korean spicy squid ($13) and the Korean bibim bop ($13). The squid included thick sections of tender tentacles, bell peppers, jalapeño slices, scallions and onions stir-fried to the edge of smokiness — delicious, aromatic and subtly stinging. The bibim bop could hardly have been more appropriate for a snow-chilled night: stir-fried rice and ground beef baked screaming hot in a stone pot brought to the table. A server then chopped a sunny-side-up egg into the mixture along with spoonfuls of gochujang (a mild, sweet and savory chili paste) to create an audibly sizzling and soothing core-warmer.
Eager to have someone else make the selections, I returned another night with a chef friend knowledgeable in Asian foods. I’d have never picked the agedashi tofu ($6), but was thankful he did. Fried slightly crisp on the outside, but pillowy on the inside, the pale white cubes, sprinkled with soy sauce and bonito flakes, chewed like vegetable marshmallows. A baby octopus salad ($7) was a sight to behold — that is, if you’re not thrown off your feed by a small pile of diminutive octopods. About a dozen of them, brick colored and shiny, were commingled with cucumber crescents and noodles in a light marinade.
Once again maki commanded the spotlight with the red bull roll ($14): salmon wrapped in rice and sheathed in a scrim of beef blow-torched barely to rare. The light smoke produced by the flash heating fingered its way through the whole, which was amplified by a light teriyaki glaze. The hamachi kama (white tuna cheek, $9) was just as good, its snow-white meat grilled moist and falling from the bone with minimal urging from chopsticks. My friend lamented the fact that we weren’t in a barbecue joint where he could pick up the bone and gnaw away the remaining flesh.
Service couldn’t have been more charming, sincere and efficient. Like many Asian restaurants, Wild Ginger’s menu is extensive and varied, leaving a lot untouched in my two visits, but much to dream of for return trips.
Wild Ginger Sushi Bistro, 1700 Bardstown Road, 384-9252.
Open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.