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 Hagen-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.
It's got a dark, clubby feel. Low lighting, casino-red carpeting and abstract flower paintings contribute to the effect. The windows are cleverly frosted to look like Oriental screens, keeping Japanese atmosphere in and Scottsdale views out.
The 20-seat sushi bar had no empty spots, but the real glory here is the teppanyaki featured in the main dining room.
Seven chairs line three sides of the large, rectangular tables. The fourth side is reserved for the knife-twirling chef, who is armed with enough blades to ride the New York City subways hassle-free. With much flair and little patter, he cooks up dinner on the sizzling grill encased within the table.
Mindful of the fact that portions are traditionally small--reports of diners leaving Japanese restaurants with doggie bags are rarer than Elvis sightings at Circle K--my hungry pal and I decided to take no chances that we'd need a midnight snack.
So we started off with a delightful platter of sushi. Sprightly freshwater eel and smooth tuna got our attention, but the eel and cucumber roll and Alaskan hand roll reached out and grabbed us. The former came zipped up with sesame oil and seeds, imparting a delightful flavor kick. The hand roll, a large, unwieldy, cone-shaped concoction, came stuffed with savory bits of salmon.
We also knocked off the tumbler of sake that comes with the meal, as well as the accompanying bowl of miso soup and dreary "Japanese" salad laced with an unfortunate dressing. But still worried about the size of the main dishes, we decided an order of tempura would stave off famine in a worst-case scenario. It turned out that Kyoto's tempura plate could satisfy both sumo wrestlers and demanding diners. It's huge and delicious, lined with pairs of puffy battered shrimp, carrots, potato, sweet potato, zucchini and onion. Unless you're a pro, think twice about ordering tempura and dinner.
Then it was showtime.
Kyoto offers five combination dinners, involving various permutations of chicken, steak, shrimp, scallops and lobster.
The chef wheeled up a cart with all the fixings for everybody at the table. (We shared our space with a group of five, including two impeccably behaved children.) Then he switched on the overhead lights and blower and began his performance.
With blinding speed, he dealt out the sauce dishes as if they were hole cards at a Las Vegas poker table. Neatly arranged plates got doused with liquor and set aflame. Platters of vegetables spilled onto the scorchingly hot grill. His flashing knives sliced, diced and chopped mushrooms, onions and zucchini so quickly we seemed to be watching in fast forward. It crossed our minds that all this activity could have been only a bells-and-whistles smoke screen for a lackluster main course. But after a few bites, it was clear that Kyoto's meat and seafood were topnotch. And moreover, we were gratified to note, there were plenty of em.
The shrimp, scallop and lobster combo came with a whole lobster tail, big and meaty. The shrimp and scallops were firm, succulent and irresistible.
And no one could find fault with the thin slices of tender New York steak or juicy, white-meat chicken flecked with sesame seeds, either.
Chopsticking our way through the final morsels, we both experienced two rarely coupled Japanese restaurant sensations: taste-bud satisfaction and full bellies. But the prospect of dessert loomed over us. Oriental sweets, I've long suspected, are the reason you rarely see overweight Asians. Happily, Kyoto neatly solved this problem: It doesn't offer any.
Energetic and entertaining, Kyoto's a good place for first-timers to sample unthreatening Japanese fare, as well as a pleasing stop for critical veterans. As far as I'm concerned, the yen stops here.