Sometimes things just don’t turn out quite as planned. The clever title of this week’s column was to have been “Con-fusion Food,” based on some rumors I’d heard about Yamasaki restaurant, which features what the owners call “Fusion Cuisine.” Too often, fusion cooking is confused—trendy and innovative, but not always very satisfying on the palate. Sadly—or maybe happily—I had to abandon my sarcastic heading because, well, the fusion cuisine at Yamasaki hits all the right notes. There is nothing confused about it.
Yamasaki is a good illustration of why I tend to ignore restaurant rumors. I’d heard nothing positive about Yamasaki from folks supposedly “in the know,” but decided to check it out for myself. Frankly, I was bowled over by how much I liked the restaurant and how wrong my normally sensible colleagues were. (Although in fairness to my friends, the Yamasaki menu has undergone major changes and revisions since the restaurant opened a few months ago.) That’s the reason I don’t rush to review new restaurants before the paint is dry. Sometimes it takes a month or two for the dust to settle and for the kitchen to work out the kinks.
Yamasaki is owned by Yoshiko and Osamu Tada, the Japanese couple who also run Kyoto, celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer. I’ve always considered Kyoto to be one of Salt Lake’s finest Japanese restaurants; like many, I’m of the opinion that Kyoto serves the best tempura in town.
Like Kyoto, Yamasaki is a stand-alone operation. It’s located in the beautiful white house on 900 East in Murray that for years was home to Helen’s restaurant, and more recently became the Argentine Grill. The space still has touches of Helen’s, like the wood chairs and the Bavarian-themed mural on one wall. It’s surrounded by beautiful gardens, which right now are resplendent with a rainbow of spring flowers. And fresh flowers adorn each dining room table, too, a simple but elegant touch. Despite the fusion cuisine menu orientation, the restaurant itself isn’t especially contemporary as you might expect, but warm, charming and classy.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is Kyoto II. It’s not. Yes, there are a few maki sushi rolls on the menu, along with shrimp and squid tempura. But that’s pretty much where the culinary similarities between Kyoto and Yamasaki end. Compared to Kyoto, the Yamasaki dinner menu (they just began serving lunch a week or so ago) is somewhat limited, with a handful of appetizers and about 10 entrees to choose from. But I like the less-is-more approach, and there’s not a single menu item at Yamasaki that I’ve tasted and not enjoyed.
Although it’s not listed on the regular dinner menu, Yamasaki occasionally offers a special tuna sashimi (raw) appetizer. Even though it’s a bit pricey at $12, it’s a large serving of beautiful deep ruby slices of fresh tuna, a portion that is plenty for two people to share. The dish is artfully presented, but not fussed with too much. After all, it’s pretty hard to improve on fresh raw tuna. But if you prefer your tuna slightly cooked, Yamasaki also offers seared ahi tuna drizzled with citrus soy sauce ($10.50).
Another wonderful Yamasaki starter is the “Baby Lobster” ($8) in a coconut breading, served with hot Thai dipping sauce. The baby lobsters are actually langoustes, skewered and deep-fried until crisp and crunchy. Try this dish on your kids—they’ll love its sweetness. Yet another sure-fire appetizer at Yamasaki—and certainly not a dish I’d expected to find in an Asian restaurant—was a plate of large, thickly stuffed mushroom raviolis, bathed in a rich and creamy red miso sauce ($7). As with most of the dishes at Yamasaki, the portion is huge and the mushroom ravioli could easily serve as an entrÃ©e.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure where the “fusion” aspect comes in at Yamasaki. Most of the entrees tend to be either traditionally European or traditionally Japanese, like pan-roasted duck breast served with a tart cranberry sauce ($16), or New York strip steak with green peppercorn sauce ($19), or roasted chicken in an olive and red wine reduction ($13). The pork cutlet is a traditionally homestyle Japanese tonkatsu preparation, breaded with panko crumbs and flash-fried. Ditto for the teriyaki chicken, which is a typical Japanese dish, and hardly “fusion.”
But no matter what you label them, all of these dishes are very satisfying and delicious. The duck breast was cooked exactly as I’d ordered, medium rare, and was melt-in-the-mouth tender. But as much as I’ve liked everything I’ve eaten at Yamasaki, my favorite dish is probably their grilled halibut, served with a classic Choron sauce, which is essentially a French bÃ©arnaise tinted slightly pink with the addition of tomato, tomato puree or tomato water. Like most of the sensibly priced Yamasaki entrees, the halibut in Choron sauce seems a steal at $16.00, which includes veggies and a choice of starch.
Yamasaki service is exceptional, particularly if you happen to be seated in Kara’s section. There’s a small, but functional list of wine, beer and sake, but it would be nice to see the wine selection—especially the whites—beefed up a bit. Corkage is a reasonable $8.
The only thing confusing about Yamasaki might be getting to it, since at present major construction and a few detours on 900 East make approaching the restaurant tricky. But stay the course, because whether it is fusion or not, the flavors at Yamasaki are delightful.
YAMASAKI, 6055 S. 900 East, 293-7115, Dinner Monday-Saturday, From 5:30, Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.