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.
I like the shabu shabu a lot, though I think I might wait for cooler weather to have it again. A gas burner at the table does tend to heat things up a bit. Also, I learn the hard way that it's possible to burn yourself while shabu-ing. Try not to let your hand come in contact with the cooker. I did. In lieu of green tea, green tea ice cream is an excellent way to end the meal. Made especially for Yamakasa by Dreyer's, this light-green frozen confection is refreshingly different. For an additional 50 cents, the truly adventurous among you may want to try it with kinsuba, adzuki bean paste topping. Its sweet flavor contrasts nicely with the tea-flavored ice cream. Any restaurant that's full in the heat of summer, despite an obscure location in the bowels of a Safeway plaza, must be doing something right. All I can say is origato, Yamakasa.
Korean Garden, newly opened in Tempe, thinks of itself as a restaurant serving authentic, home-style Korean food. You won't find table grilling here, but at the very least, Korean Garden offers the uninitiated in the East Valley an introduction to this lesser-known Far Eastern cuisine.
Of course, for the 200 or so students from Korea attending Arizona State University, it means not having to travel so far for a home-cooked meal. Provided, of course, they like Korean Garden's kimchee. This spicy pickled Korean culinary treasure can be made from any vegetable, but of particular importance is the kimchee made from Chinese cabbage; it's practically the national food. According to one newly minted Ph.D. from Korea, the way to tell if a Korean restaurant is good is simply to taste its kimchee. That's it. A pretty tough test, actually, when you consider that kimchee is a very personal thing. Every family has its own recipe, and there are regional variations as well.
Korean Garden serves several types of pickled vegetables. Kimchee on the days I visit is made of daikon radish and Chinese cabbage. Other condiments include pickled broccoli, bean sprouts, black beans, tiny dried fish and a Korean salad of romaine lettuce with soy-based dressing. In Korea a soup or soupy stew is nearly always served with the meal. They are used as a source of liquid; beverages are reserved for after the meal. We try the seafood jungol one visit; yookgae jang and kimchee stew another. Seafood jungol is a pleasant orangeish-red seafood soup of whole crab, clams, shrimp and onions, served in a metal kettle. Without the proper utensils (we have only long-handled soup spoons and chopsticks), we are forced to leave the still-in-the-shell crab untouched. It turns out this is just as well. I subsequently learn from my Korean acquaintance that it is considered bad form to eat the meat out of the shell; it shows desperation.
Yookgae jang proves to be a very spicy shredded beef soup. Fireball red in color, it suffers from one-dimensional seasoning--red pepper. The best way to handle this soup is to eat it Korean-style. Put a small quantity in your soup bowl, add a spoonful or two of rice from your metal rice bowl, and eat the diluted mixture. It helps.
Kimchee stew is wonderful. Made of kimchee cabbage stewed with coarse tofu, the combination is homey, yet still spicy enough to be interesting.
Noodle fan that I am, we sample some Korean noodle dishes. Jap chae (also spelled chap che or chapchae) consists of sweet yam noodles, julienned carrots and green pepper and bits of marinated, grilled beef. I find Korean Garden's version workmanlike; a recent sampling of the same dish at Kimchee House was more varied and pure heaven.
Bibim Naengmyun is a cold noodle dish made of very thin buckwheat noodles, red chili paste, sliced cucumber, daikon radish, beef and hard-boiled egg. The mixture is all tossed together with chopsticks and served with the aid of some ultramodern scissors. Talk about efficient! You simply pull up a length of noodle, then snip. Considered fast food in Korea, these noodles left me a little cold. Bibim bab (also spelled bibimbob) is an interesting concoction, also mixed at the table. In this case, rice is served in the center of a dish surrounded by piles of bean sprouts, shredded beef, zucchini, mushroom and spinach, topped with red-pepper paste and a fried egg. (In Korea, up to twenty vegetables might appear in this dish.) It is tasty, but again, slightly sweet.
I have no complaints with Korean Garden's bool gogee (spelled bul go ki or bulgogi elsewhere). The thin-sliced barbecued beef is a little on the greasy side, but it is tasty and tender enough to pull apart with chopsticks and perfectly complemented by the assorted kimchee at the table.
Which, I guess, is the most important item--according to Korean standards--for me to review. My assessment? Though I find Korean Garden's kimchee brinier than I'd prefer, I think it's passable. If I could change it, I'd make it less salty and more spicy.
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Korean Garden is clean and attractive inside. The decor is simple, relying on forest-green walls, pale wood screens and beige tweed chairs. But why is the upholstery covered with plastic wrap? This is no way to make customers feel welcome or trusted. Unwrap those chairs. If you want to give Korean Garden a tryout at lunchtime, a word of warning. At many restaurants, "lunch specials" are invariably disappointing. As it is always possible to order from the dinner menu, that's what I'd advise. It may cost a little more, but you'll probably be happier with the result.
Yamakasa, 9301 East Shea, Scottsdale, 860-5605. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Korean Garden, 1324 South Rural, Tempe, 967-1133. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
It is clear to everyone present that this is a happening place as much as it is a restaurant serving good Japanese food.