Cafe Reviews

Raw Emotion

I could probably devote my entire job to visiting all the Japanese places opening around the Valley these days. Even for an avid sushi eater like me, it's a lot to keep up with. How's a girl supposed to tell them apart?

Well, short of going there, it sure helps to see a menu. I had to admit I'm a little bored with the standards — as much as I love tempura and teriyaki — so I always keep an eye out for something unusual, preferably something I'd find in Japan. (Believe me, restaurants here take a lot of liberties with "Japanese cuisine.")

Traditional grills called robata are super-popular over there, and in recent years, the trend has spread to high-end eateries in the States, where meat and seafood grilled on skewers is starting to share menu space with sushi.

What a delight, then, to see that Yasu Sushi Bistro devotes a whole page to sumibiyaki, charcoal-grilled dishes that get their distinctively savory fragrance from an expensive kind of oak charcoal called binchotan. In particular, the item that grabbed my attention (and got my mouth watering) was the Washu beef, a crossbreed of Black Angus and native Japanese Wagyu that's treasured for its rich flavor and a buttery texture. Although it's not nearly as budget-busting as real Kobe beef imported from Japan, it's still a pricey proposition.

I didn't order the Washu beef the day I visited Yasu for lunch; I was with a health-conscious friend who favors fish and lighter dishes. So I went back for dinner with a hungry group of beef eaters. Alas, a few minutes after I placed my order, our waitress came back to apologize. They didn't have it that night.

"The chef said he didn't think the Washu was very good this week, so he didn't get any," she said, suggesting we try the rib-eye steak instead.

I tried not to let on how heartbroken I was. I'd spent the whole day dreaming about a few precious bites of this mythically delicious meat — and getting my friends worked up about it, too — and, suddenly, I had to switch gears. But I took it as a sign of the chef's high standards. Just to find out what was up, I called owner Yoshi Natori a few days later.

"Oh, yes, Yasu's very picky," he said about co-owner and chef Yasu Hashino. "If he doesn't like the fish or the meat, he'll send it back."

(If the name rings a bell, Natori is the founder of Yoshi's, the Valleywide fast-Japanese chain. Meanwhile, Hashino's résumé includes stints at Sushi on Shea, Saki's, and most recently, Shimogamo, known for some of the finest sushi in town. The two opened Yasu Sushi Bistro at the end of December, in a strip near Paradise Valley Mall.)

I guess I'm in the minority when it comes to wanting Washu. Natori told me he's still hopeful it'll catch on with customers, but it's not a big seller yet. Compared with other things on the menu — mostly sharable small plates that run well under 10 bucks apiece — Washu beef is noticeably more, at 30 dollars for five ounces.

The rib-eye cost half that and was still excellent — juicy, lightly caramelized, and touched with smokiness. Another winner from the sumibiyaki menu was two fat, creamy sea scallops wrapped in bacon. Grilled asparagus was unadorned but nicely charred, and a whole grilled squid (on special one day) was sprinkled with dried bonito shavings that lazily waved back and forth from the heat.

One of my favorite things from the grill was the tsukune, skewered ground chicken with a smoky-sweet glaze. At most places, if you can find tsukune at all, you get a few smaller meatballs on a stick. Here, they give you one big one, more like a patty than a meatball, with an awesome meaty texture. (Note to self: Don't share it next time!) Like everything else at Yasu — even the miso soup — it's made from scratch.

That reminds me of one quirk that Yasu needs to iron out. If it weren't for the fact that I love tsukune and have eaten them for years, my dining companions sure wouldn't have known to order them. Americans are hip to a lot of Japanese culinary terms, but that one isn't a household word yet — a snippet of description would be a helpful addition to the menu.

Sushi doesn't get any better than the sublime offerings at Yasu Sushi Bistro. Sure, I've been talking up the robata part of the menu, but after one bite of ultra-fresh saba — moist, delicate, mildly fragrant mackerel that was a far cry from the fishy-fish some places serve — it was immediately clear why sushi's part of the restaurant name. I could've eaten a plateful of the silky yellowtail as plain sashimi. It was that tasty. And I was thrilled to see aji (Spanish mackerel) as one of the specials. The last time I tasted a glistening sliver of fish that mind-blowing, it was at Sea Saw, James Beard award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda's restaurant in Scottsdale.

Speaking of, the whitefish carpaccio here reminded me of Sea Saw's, only simpler, and without warm bread to soak up the juice. Yasu's version is thinly sliced, translucent white sashimi drizzled with an aromatic mix of hot sesame oil, soy sauce, and ginger. I also enjoyed the tempura yellowtail — minced raw fish rolled up in a shiso leaf, wrapped with a band of nori, lighly batter-fried, and served with ponzu.

Yasu Sushi Bistro was impressive all the way around, with interesting specials of the day like sanma (mackerel pike) and ankimo (monkfish liver pate); a few nice desserts (fluffy green tea tiramisu, among others); and a good list of sake. As for the atmosphere, it's sleek and surprisingly cozy for a strip mall, with warm lighting and a bamboo drop ceiling hanging above the sushi bar.

I'm sure that even though there are so many new Japanese places around town, with some trial and error, I eventually would've stumbled on Yasu Sushi Bistro, even if I hadn't gotten hold of its menu. But I hate the thought that it could've flown under my radar any longer. As with anything this delicious, sooner sure beats later.