The eyes of the Japanese golfers widened as they entered Yotaka Sushi and Grill. "This is an American-style sushi bar," explained their white middle-management hosts. Their guests chuckled politely, casing the joint as if they'd stepped into a saloon full of bikers.
I could empathize. Yotaka looks more like a steakhouse than your typical Japanese restaurant. No paper screens or lanterns, no white walls crossed with rustic timbers, no whiff of Zen austerity. Instead, tasseled paisley curtains envelop the windows, pulled back just enough to look out onto the tony strip mall outside. Marble-based pillars surround the room, and richly upholstered cherrywood chairs flank the inlaid wooden tables. The stage lights hanging from the ceiling, a crosshatch of black slats, complete the feeling of being on a soap-opera set. And then there are the flat-screen TVs next to the bar.
In fact, the only clue that you'll find sushi at Yotaka is the sushi bar itself. A twelve-seater, the bar is staffed by buff sushi chefs in black T-shirts who look as if they should be handing body shots, not salmon roe, to the folks on the other side of the counter.
But they slice a mean maki.
Evelyn Tang, who owns two restaurants in Burlingame, opened Yotaka one and a half years ago. She's Chinese American, and so is her sushi chef, Kenny Liu. Hence the more-is-more aesthetic. Why sushi? "We love sushi. My kids love sushi. It saves us money because we don't have to go out for dinner," she jokes.
Along with a bowl of edamame and a plate of steaming washcloths, the waiters bring two menus: one raw, one cooked. That's when the restaurant's Japaneseness sets in. The raw menu lists traditional nigiri, maki, and sashimi, as well as American-style sushi -- the giant whiz-bang rolls that pack as much fun into a nori wrapper as a trip to Dollywood. The cooked menu contains a page of traditional and fusion appetizers, and then a couple more pages of easily recognizable entrées, from tempura to teriyaki.
So in the spirit of the restaurant, I divided my visits into raw and cooked, too.
Visit one meant sushi for everyone. Feeling generous, the sushi chefs cut off seductively thick slices of fish for their nigiri. The hamachi and white tuna were so fresh that the meat retained an almost mineral sweetness, and slipped across the tongue like mousse -- a reminder of why sushi has become our favorite affordable luxury. Two slabs of sea bass (although not the endangered Chilean species) were garnished with a spicy radish puree that stopped burning just as the last of the silky fish slid down the throat. And the unagi? I've never met a piece I didn't devour. However, the salmon skin in our salmon skin roll had been crisped a bit too much -- I tasted a bit of carbon along with the crunch.
We saw a couple of foot-long American rolls pass by our table on their way to compete for the Pulitzer in architecture, but our silicon roll showed enough restraint to be Japanese: turned inside out, à la California, to let the rice show through, the roll was centered around a triply buttery interior of smoked salmon, real shredded crab meat, and avocado. Our massive spider roll, wrapped around lettuce, cucumber, tobiko, avocado, and a tempura'd soft-shell crab, maintained that enticing contrast between creamy and crispy until I fit the last piece into my mouth. Its one flaw? I couldn't taste the crab; only the breading.
Visit two started off with an overambitious round of appetizers. What we discovered when we read the fine print of our menus is that starters aren't necessary. They're really designed to fill out a meal of sushi and small plates. Most of the regular entrées (and they're served on big plates) come with bowls of a decent miso soup and iceberg lettuce slathered in gingery Thousand Island dressing, and finish with a cup of vanilla ice cream. That's already a lot of food.
But it was too late. Unlike chewy Chinese pot stickers, Yotaka's gyoza are wrapped in a delicate sheet of dough, a slipcover for the delicately gingery pork inside. For the tatsu-age, the cooks coated big chunks of chicken breast meat in feathery panko crumbs, then fried them just until the meat cooked through, not until the fryer had sucked out all their moisture. For their version of oshitashi, they spooned a tart ponzu sauce around a mound of barely blanched spinach leaves, then showered pink bonito flakes over top, which tasted like wisps of sea foam.
Fusiony tuna toasts were almost great. Great to look at, yes -- four slices of grilled French bread topped with a spicy tuna tartare, set around a loose ball of daikon threads and radish sprouts on a zigzag of cayenne-red mayonnaise. Unfortunately, the raw tuna seemed to have been pureed in a food processor, where it got whizzed into a gummy paste that stuck to the roof of the mouth.
There's no hint of fusion in Yotaka's studiously rendered renditions of the classics, unless you count the maraschino cherries that kept popping up as a garnish. The teriyaki sauce on the beef teriyaki contained a little too much cornstarch and sugar, but underneath, the tender grilled meat had a thin strip of pink at the center. The tempura had a nubbly, lacy coating that didn't sog out when dunked in a peppery dipping sauce and didn't bog down the vegetables and shrimp in oil. (If tempura always seems less oily than other fritters, that's because science -- yes, science -- has proven that rice-flour batters absorb less oil than wheat-flour batters. Tempura batter mixes the two flours -- the rice for lightness, the wheat for color.) Shabu-shabu, a cauldron of miso broth with shaved beef, barely braised vegetables, and transparent, elastic yam noodles, would have been a one-note stew had it not been for the soy-vinegar dipping sauce served separately. Each shock of acid made the homey broth taste new again. And even the golfers would have been content with their bowl of rice -- chewy, distinct grains that stuck together, but just because they wanted to.
The servers reel around the room like partnerless square dancers, hustling pleasantly from table to table. But on both visits, their interest in us peaked with the arrival of the entrées. By dessert time, we had to pull the old look-around-expectantly trick for a couple of minutes to secure a last sip of water and change for the bill.
I finally found another Japanese touch in the men's room: a trio of painted court ladies coyly pulling apart their kimonos to flash their breasts. A friend reported that the women's room featured the same ladies, but no skin. Now you'll know why your date is taking so long to wash his hands.