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It is 9:30 on a Wednesday evening in North Scottsdale. The parking lot is dotted with Range Rovers. Inside, our fellow diners seem unaware of the time. Fashionably dressed in expensive casual clothes, they chat unconcernedly, as if the evening had just begun. They wield wooden chopsticks with decided ease. I feel as if I'm in another city, another state.
Welcome to Yamakasa, the Valley's newest Japanese restaurant. Located at 92nd Street and Shea, Yamakasa is a reincarnation, with new ownership, of Restaurant Fuji. Staying in this affluent northeast area was a smart move. Residents here are young enough, rich enough and restless enough to keep a neighborhood restaurant busy.
Which is exactly what Yamakasa is. Busy. Not in a bad way, mind you. Both nights I visit, the restaurant is full of hip and happy patrons, some with dates, some with children, some with cellular phones. It is clear to everyone present that this is a happening place as much as it is a restaurant serving good Japanese food.
Yamakasa has a clean and comfortable feel to it. Decor is simple and sparse. Off-white, ink blue and oak predominate. Walls are covered with beige wallpaper patterned with bamboo, a tree much respected by the Japanese for its agile strength. Dark blue shows up in booths, kitchen curtains and karate-style staff uniforms. Yamakasa offers three types of seating: sushi bar, booths and traditional low tables with mats. On the first night I visit, a dining accomplice and I choose a booth. (It seems rather rude to jot notes at the sushi bar.) On the second visit, another accomplice and I sit Japanese-style on Yamakasa's raised dining platform.
On both occasions, we are served by the same woman. Service is fairly good until the last third of each meal, when our waitress disappears for ten minutes at a pop. This can be disconcerting when progress--or the check--is desired. Apart from this one annoying flaw, she is responsive, helpful and concerned.
The meal begins with hot terry cloth towels for cleansing the hands and face. Following this is tofu misoshiru (fermented bean paste) soup. Yamakasa's miso is cloudy, off-white and the perfect temperature for sipping. Green kelp, silky tofu and floating crunchy things make it interesting.
A small sunomono arrives next. This vinegar'd salad consists primarily of cucumber, sesame seeds and agar-agar--clear seaweed resembling noodles. I like the sunomono's tart quality and interesting textures very much.
Tempura is lovely at Yamakasa. The batter is delicate, light and opaque. On the nights I'm in attendance, tempura'd foods include onion, broccoli, bell pepper, zucchini, yam and shrimp. A small dish of soy-based dipping sauce helps unleash the flavors of the vegetables, in particular.
When ordered as a main course, tempura comes with a pile of shredded bok choy accented with red cabbage. Lacy in texture and fresh-tasting, this unassuming salad is wonderful thanks to its soy/ginger/onion dressing. A carrot garnish carved to resemble a cherry blossom is perfect and highly Japanese.
On my first visit, I sample Yamakasa's sushi. Someone recently claimed in my presence that "good sushi is better than sex." While I thoroughly enjoy the tender yellowtail, attractive shrimp, chewy squid and assorted maki sushi I try, I'm not sure I would go that far. But this theory certainly explains the orgasmic grins on the faces of some other patrons.
Presentation of all dishes is lovely. Sushi is arranged purposefully on a large platter which looks ceramic, but proves to be plastic. A mound of sinus-clearing green horseradish paste and a small stack of ginger balance the plate. I like that our waitress brings us low-sodium soy sauce, but regular soy sauce also is available.
On another visit, my dining accomplice, a visiting scholar from Japan, and I sample shabu shabu. On the menu, the restaurant requests two days' notice to prepare this Japanese version of beef fondue. Reservations for this dish are essential, though you may discover, as I did, that two days' notice is not. The price for this special meal is $18.50 per person.
Shabu shabu acquired its name from the sound the Japanese heard as they swirled the meat in broth to cook. At Yamakasa, miso, sunomono and tempura precede shabu shabu. My accomplice informs me that in Japan, there would be no such order to the dishes. He shakes his head when our waitress asks us if we'd like rice with our meal. Miso, pickles and a bowl of rice are always served last, he says. Rice is eaten without a beverage, and the meal concludes with green tea.
Still, he has no complaints about the shabu shabu. We're both pleased with the quality of beef and vegetables served for dipping. The beef is red and arranged on the plate in very thin slices. The vegetables include sliced shiitake mushrooms, scallions, bok choy, spinach, cherry blossom carrots, tofu and agar-agar.
The process is pretty simple. A Bundt-like cooking bowl filled with broth is heated at the table over a portable gas burner. Once the broth begins to boil, you cook the meat and vegetables by swirling them, one piece at a time, in the broth. Additional flavor is obtained by dipping cooked meat and veggies in the soy and sesame-paste sauces brought in separate dishes.