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.
Shabu-shabu is another nabemono staple, this one based on beef. Pick up the translucently thin strips of raw meat with your chopsticks and swish them in the boiling broth. ("Shabu-shabu" is the sound the beef supposedly makes when it touches the liquid.) Then toss in the platter of veggies: two kinds of mushrooms, tofu, nappa cabbage and greens. The result is light, clean and tasty.
Yamakasa joins Sushi on Shea and the Fish Market in the top rank of Valley sushi destinations. Let's lift our sake glasses and make a toast: Here's looking at you, squid.
Ninja Japanese Restaurant, 2330 North Alma School, Chandler, 899-3423. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Ninja has been around these parts for quite a while. But it's only been this good a short while, since management installed a teppanyaki room.
The section is blanketed with televisions. But don't look for Seinfeld or Singled Out. This is karaoke television, which features tunes from the homeland. If you've forgotten the words and want to sing along, brush up on your Japanese and follow the bouncing ball on the screen.
Most Japanese-food fans are familiar with the teppanyaki setup: Up to eight diners sit around three sides of a large rectangular table, in the center of which is a scorchingly hot grill. A knife-twirling chef occupies the fourth side, entertaining his hungry audience by slicing and dicing his way through an assortment of meat, veggies and seafood.
Ninja's teppanyaki chefs have different performing specialties. The maestro at the next table constructed an onion volcano, a mound of layered, carefully balanced rings that spurted flames. Our guy's talents lay in another direction: He'd bang the salt and pepper shakers down on the table, launch them in the air and catch them on top of his head, in the crease of his chef's hat. (Who says the Valley has no culture?)
The floor show gets even better once the chef starts dishing out the food. Teppanyaki fare is only as good as the ingredients, and the raw materials here are first-rate. And, bless its heart, Ninja provides enough of them to take care of hearty occidental appetites, too.
Meals start off with miso soup and salad. Then the chef will grill up lots of veggies: zucchini, mushrooms, carrots, onion and broccoli, sprinkling them with soy sauce and sesame seeds.
You choose among various combinations of chicken, beef and seafood to furnish your animal protein. Whatever you pick, you won't be disappointed.
Shrimp are meaty, flavorful creatures, briefly sizzled to optimum specs. I could dispense with everything else and make a meal just out of the scallops. Ninja's are gorgeous: big, juicy mollusks light-years better than the rubbery hockey pucks I've seen all too often elsewhere. Order the filet mignon and you'll get about six ounces of trimmed perfection, cut into bite-size pieces and soft enough to gum. And while chicken breast lacks excitement, at least the poultry tasted like it came from an actual chicken.
Ninja gives the budget-challenged a break, too. Teppanyaki fare is not cheap--the combos here range from $16 to $26, which is in line with other teppanyaki restaurants in town. But if you get here between 5 and 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, you get a two-for-one deal.
Ninja's other room offers sushi bar and non-teppanyaki dining. While the sushi can't quite match Yamakasa's quality, the sushi chef does put together several artful creations. The tasty caterpillar roll, made from unagi, cucumber and avocado, looks like it's alive and about to start slithering. The colorful rainbow roll is spread out with five kinds of fish, from deep-pink salmon to white shrimp. Best is the tuna on tuna, a long roll filled with spicy tuna inside, and a layer of maguro around the circumference.
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The "kitchen dining" alternatives to teppanyaki fare are strictly routine. There's nothing notable about the assortment of tempura. Yakisoba, noodles mixed with chicken and vegetables, is just a more expensive version of what you find at Japanese fast-food parlors. And the katsu, deep-fried chicken fillet moistened with a fruity tonkatsu sauce, didn't taste as fresh as it should have.
There's not much teppanyaki-restaurant competition in Maricopa County. I'm aware of Ah-So in the West Valley, Ayako of Tokyo in Biltmore Fashion Park and Kyoto in Scottsdale. They're all good. So is Ninja.
Snow crab hand roll
Ninja Japanese Restaurant:
Tuna on tuna roll
Steak and chicken teppanyaki
Shrimp and scallops teppanyaki