Unago Hope

Yamakasa, 2051 West Warner, Chandler, 899-8868. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Let's play reverse Family Feud. We surveyed 100 people and asked them: What doesn't come to mind when you think of Chandler, Arizona?

The top three answers: dusk-to-dawn nightlife; thoughtful urban planning; and wonderful Japanese restaurants.

Not too long ago, these responses would have made perfect sense. But now that Yamakasa and Ninja have invigorated the town's Asian restaurant scene, it's time for a reassessment.

No doubt their Chandler addresses threw me off and lowered my expectations. After all, could anyone possibly mistake the sterile stretch of West Warner asphalt between Dobson and Alma School, where these restaurants have set up operations in shopping-center storefronts, for Tokyo's Ginza district? But now, several outstanding meals later, I'm no longer quite so sure. I feel like I've been for a ride on the dis-Orient Express.

Diners with long memories may remember Yamakasa from its north Scottsdale days on Shea Boulevard. Formerly one of the Valley's premier Japanese restaurants, the place seemed to lose its edge after one of the operators left to open the excellent Sushi on Shea just a mile or so away. The rivalry didn't last long--Yamakasa folded soon after.

Yamakasa may have been down, but not out. Happily, it has been revitalized, and the glory days have been restored, this time in the East Valley. Right now it serves some of the best Japanese seafood in the Valley.

How can you account for the turnaround? You could point to the absolutely fresh fish. I'm told Yamakasa orders ocean fare in tandem with its next-door, Chinese-restaurant neighbor, the remarkable C-Fu Gourmet, which specializes in seafood so fresh most of it is still swimming when you order it. Their combined buying power provides Yamakasa with a quality and variety of aquatic life it might otherwise be difficult to sustain.

Skilled kitchen talent is another reason. Not only do the sushi chefs here have prime-quality raw material to work with, they also know what to do with it.

It's a small place, with only an eight-seat sushi bar, serviced by three chefs. You can also dine at one of the four tables in the front room. Overflow crowds and private parties get exiled to a second, somewhat less festive room in the back. There's not much in the way of decor--a few fans, vases, framed plates and sake sets. Ray Charles provides the audio background.

But the real artistry isn't in the restaurant design; it's what's on your plate. The sushi here is good enough to make me wish I could afford to eat it several nights a week.

The usual sushi-bar suspects display unusual quality. Toro--the prime, marbled underside of the tuna--is wonderful, combining a silky smooth texture with sublime flavor. Unagi, grilled freshwater eel infused with a smoky scent, is another favorite of mine, and not just because it's supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Sushi put together with squid, oyster, octopus, fluke, yellowtail and salmon roe are also topnotch.

The hand rolls are especially noteworthy. The snow crab model is fantastic, thick and crunchy; the spicy tuna roll throws off vibrant, mouth-tingling heat; and you'll resist any attempt to share the salmon skin roll. If you're a fan of cut rolls, I suggest you skip the boring California rolls and focus on the marvelous soft-shell crab roll or the tempura roll, fashioned from lightly battered shrimp. The eel-and-cucumber model also has no discernible shortcomings.

The busy sushi masters don't take kindly to special requests. I can understand why. If you want something out of the ordinary, check out the daily specials or the "chef's specials" section of the menu.

Is there another sushi bar in town, besides Sushi on Shea, that offers ankimo, monkfish liver pate? It's very trendy, although I'm not sure Chandler, or any place in Arizona, is quite ready for it. But we're certainly ready for tempura maguro, tuna wrapped in seaweed, dipped in batter, fried for just a few seconds, then cut into thin slices. It's adorned with a quirky, creamy miso sauce that's easy to get used to. Agedashi tofu is also a marvel, tofu wrapped with white fish, briefly fried and teamed with a pungent fish sauce.

Yamakasa doesn't offer much in the way of main dishes, just three nabemono (hot pot) meals, prepared at the table. At this time of year, though, they're an attractive option. (In Japan, nabemono are cool-weather dishes.)

The kaisen nabe is a seafood feast you put together yourself, depending on what's available. We chose lobster and mussels, both of which the server hauled out live from the tanks and brought over to the table for our inspection.

Then she fired up the portable stove, brought over a pot filled with sake-flavored water and started it boiling. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, someone had cracked open the lobster, exposing the sweet, succulent meat. When the water reached a boil, in went the shellfish, followed by vegetables, tofu and noodles. Everything gets cooked for just a brief moment before it's fished out and paired with a tart, citrusy ponzu sauce. The fresh, briny flavors all come together in a very appealing way.

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