FLASH IN JAPAN

Yamakasa, 9301 East Shea, Scottsdale, 860-5605. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Some adult experiences are guaranteed to be unpleasant on the first attempt.
What novice ever lighted up a cigarette, took a puff and reported sublime enjoyment from filling up his lungs with smoke? What soda-pop-slurping teenager ever sneaked a sip of scotch, loved the sharp burn on the back of her throat and immediately went out to purchase a bottle of Chivas Regal?

Many of life's pleasures (and vices) are acquired tastes, requiring a certain amount of persistence to get over the initial unfavorable impression.

Like Japanese food, in my case.
Any cuisine featuring uncooked seafood and lots of veggies was unlikely to appeal to my youthful sensibilities. My idea of a green, leafy vegetable was a deep-fried brick of onion rings. The only other place I knew that carried raw fish was a bait shop. High prices and small servings sealed my hostility.

But time and circumstance can alter prejudices. To my astonishment, these days I'm reasonably fond of kids, engage in civil discourse with Republicans and adore Japanese cooking. Especially at Yamakasa.

Once inside, the memory of Shea Boulevard and the aesthetically challenged shopping-center location quickly evaporates.

It's a serene room, after you get past the crowds huddled at the entrance waiting for a seat. A U-shaped sushi bar dominates the center, with booths skirting the walls. Toward the back are three, foot-high Japanese tables. Here, diners remove their shoes and recline on the cushioned floor.

Decor is spare: a few Japanese prints, wallpaper embossed with bamboo designs and wood frames holding paper panels. If you make a rest-room stop, you'll pass two huge holding tanks of future sushi.

And the sushi here is gorgeous. Unagi (eel) is prized in Japan for its aphrodisiacal qualities. Traditionally eaten during the hottest summer periods, it's also said to be an effective way to stave off heat exhaustion. That makes it a good choice almost year-round in the Valley. Yamakasa's powerful version is a smoky delight, perhaps the best item on the substantial sushi list.

That's not to shortchange the maguro, buttery slices of thin tuna; ikura, golden-orange salmon roe with a zesty bite; or shake, silky morsels of salmon. Even the tako (octopus), not always the tenderest denizen of the deep, went down with little help from our choppers. Scrumptious as they are, the sushi can't suppress too many robust American appetites raised on 16-ounce T-bones. Then there's the expense to consider, as well, an average of three dollars a pop per order.

So before our main course arrived, we filled in some cracks with tempura. Batter-dipped and deep-fried shrimp, onion, broccoli, pepper, green bean, zucchini and squash took the edge off.

Yamakasa offers low-priced teriyaki and tempura entrees ($7.50 to $12.95). But the house specialties are the real attraction. Each involves a complex bit of tableside cooking, an enjoyable affair that roils the appetite juices.

While Japanese customers generally prefer to do their own cooking, our waitress told us, Westerners like the option of sitting back and letting the staff do the work.

Sukiyaki, prepared in a shallow pot, features razor-thin New York steak and vegetables simmered in a sweet and spicy stock of soy sauce and sweetened sake. Meat, napa cabbage, green onions, tofu, Shiitake mushrooms, carrots and noodles floated in the boiling liquid, under the waitress's watchful eye. Every so often, she'd prod them with her chopsticks, making sure they weren't overcooked.

She also beat up a raw egg, into which sukiyaki is traditionally dipped before being consumed. But the concerns over salmonella have obviously overridden custom: The egg got tossed into the mixture, too.

The other specialties are variations on the sukiyaki theme. Chicken mizutaki presented meaty chunks of boneless chicken breast and vegetables lightly cooked in a sake-drenched broth. Diners then dip the ingredients into ponzu sauce, a vinegary dip that adds some tang to the dish.

Shabu-shabu is quite similar to sukiyaki, also employing beef. But it comes with both ponzu and gomadare sauces, the latter thickly flavored with crushed sesame seeds. There's also yosenabe, a hot pot for two swimming with whole lobster, scallops, shrimp and cod. Plan ahead if you want to order this, though; the kitchen needs two days' notice.

In a land whose inhabitants eat fish and rice for breakfast, it's not surprising that desserts may also seem somewhat foreign to Americans. The green tea ice cream, slathered with a sweet, red bean sauce, isn't a likely candidate to challenge H„agen-Dazs in the supermarket freezer. Stick to the pot of green tea.

Prime sushi and appealing main dishes contribute to Yamakasa's appeal. So do deft, friendly service and soothing atmosphere. Many words spring to mind to describe the experience here. None of them is "sayonara." Kyoto, 7170 East Stetson, Scottsdale, 990-9374. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

In contrast to Yamakasa's low-key charm, Kyoto is all bustle. On a recent steamy weeknight, the kind of evening where sensible folks stay home, lash themselves to the air-conditioning vents and pray for December, the place was jammed.

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