I'm of two minds about reviewing Japanese restaurants.
On the one hand, I relish the opportunity. I adore the cuisine, particularly the raw stuff, and think that, at least in terms of sushi, Miami's Japanese eateries offer some of the freshest fish I've ever had. I find making a meal of simple flavors like fish, rice, seaweed, soy sauce, and wasabi a welcome pause between more complex dinners cooked by ambitious chefs. I also like the fact that, caloriewise, sushi's a smart decision; while I try not to dwell on issues of weight, like everyone else I have my moments.
On the other hand, nothing is more boring than the Japanese restaurants in this town. The sushi bars could have come from a kit; the only variation among them takes the form of a competition to see who can come up with the most outlandish combinations for rolls. This, of course, is to the detriment of the cooked cuisine. Menus tend to be impossibly long and equally unimaginative, harking back to the serve-'em-chow-mein approach of the early days of America's love affair with Chinese food.
All of which puts me in a spot when it comes time to write a review. No matter how good sushi is, one quickly runs out of things to say about it -- how much ink, after all, can one expend on a piece of unadorned raw tuna? And although I always like to order a diverse sampling from a restaurant's list of offerings, when the hot fare is the typical assortment of teriyaki, tempura, and katsu, I end up sticking to sushi more often than not.
The simple solution would be to avoid writing about Japanese places, but my own cravings and a sense of fairness always lead me back. Yasuko's in Coral Gables lured me in another way when it was purchased last February from the husband of an old college friend. Now that I no longer know the owners, there is no taboo against my publishing an opinion about the place, and I was curious to see what absentee restaurateur Yasuko Maeda, who lives in Japan, had done with it.
The answer was nothing, as far as I could tell. Located on the corner of Bird Road and Ponce de Leon Boulevard, near Jaguar and Porsche dealerships (I'm sure the salesmen appreciate the proximity to bento box lunches), this storefront restaurant was the equivalent of writer's block to me -- I had to go twice just to get an impression. A carpeted, nondescript interior features a workmanlike six-seat sushi bar and a total of three prints on the walls. What's most remarkable about the dining room is the number of tables and chairs that are squeezed in, enabling Yasuko's to seat about 50 and keep the wait to a minimum.
And there usually is a wait. Turnover is high and rapid; as a result, the waitstaff is friendly but frighteningly efficient, hustling diners in and out in less than an hour. Decent sushi, some pretty good hot fare, and reasonable prices make for a meal but not a story, unless you eavesdrop on your neighbors. Bad manners, but nearly impossible to avoid when you're sitting this close to strangers; more than once I saw people I thought had been dining together part with the words "Nice to meet you."
We thought it best to begin our meal with something that seemed dependable, and paid heed to the business at the sushi bar. There was the typical variety of nigiri (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp), artfully cut but not always as generously as it could be, the rice often overwhelming the delicate seafood. We fared better when we chose sashimi. Here, in the absence of rice, freshness and quality really stood out, especially with the tuna, ruby as a jewel. Yellowtail too was tender, while salmon was a bit stringy. It was a dish called "hurricane fish," however, that grabbed most of our attention. Bits and pieces of uncooked fish, mainly yellowtail, were afloat in a dressing of sesame, garlic, and red pepper that tasted like a kim chee marinade. Served in a bowl, the fish was complemented by seaweed and shavings of cucumber.
More than a dozen different sushi rolls provide a multitude of flavors in a single bite. A "crazy roll" was delicious -- crunchy salmon skin, lettuce, cucumber, and individual bursts of smelt egg (like caviar) vying texturally with soft eel and avocado, as well as that awful crabstick stuff sushi bars here seem to hold in such high regard. A rainbow roll was another tasty investment, lacy slices of raw tuna and salmon draping a California roll (seaweed, rice, avocado, cucumber, and more of that crab stick) center.
Those who haven't got a taste for sashimi or sushi can take refuge in the chicken roll: deep-fried mouthfuls of succulent chicken grouped with boiled carrots and asparagus, rolled and sliced into half a dozen bite-size pieces, then covered with a dark, tangy house sauce. Beef negimaki, another cooked-and-rolled presentation, comprised thin slices of broiled beef wrapping scallions like cellophane around a bouquet of flowers. A dousing of teriyaki sauce added a soy touch. Surprisingly, the soaked interior was tough while the meat itself stayed supple.
A selection of about ten hot appetizers yielded some well-prepared shrimp shumai. The small fried dumplings were filled with a chopped, almost creamy shrimp interior. Crisp outside, the dough almost buttery like pastry, the rosebud-shape morsels were wonderfully rich. We also found success with a bowl of agedashi, chunks of fried tofu that were crisp outside, melting inside, with a gingery sauce made with soup stock and soy that provided a light, aromatic moistening of the tofu rather than a wilting drenching. Tempura (which can be ordered as either an appetizer or a main course) was perfect when dipped into more gingery dashi, the deep-fried broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, and shrimp having been encased in a grease-free batter.
Some main courses are served with a choice of soup or salad. The Japanese often serve salads as precursors to meals (or as meals themselves when cooking is not allowed for religious reasons). But these preparations are usually marinated or dressed combinations of vegetables like spinach, seaweed, watercress, white radish, carrots, and burdock root. Yasuko's does offer some of these, such as kimpiri (burdock root and carrot in sweetened soy sauce) and oshitashi (boiled watercress in sesame sauce). But true to form, the complimentary salad talks down to Western tastes (or lack of them), in the form of an uninspired mix of iceberg, red cabbage, and shredded carrots a la prepackaged versions available in supermarket produce sections. Fortunately the homemade salad dressings were outstanding. A vibrant carrot-ginger mixture was a guaranteed sinus blast, while miso dressing was equally powerful and not overwhelmingly sweet, as it can be at other Japanese restaurants.
Yasuko's miso soup is excellent, one of the few I've seen that's served properly. Miso, made from boiled soybeans that have been injected with mold and allowed to age, is a thick, healthy paste that contains living organisms, said to be kind to the digestive system. But when heated too much, the organisms can die. No such problem at Yasuko's: Hold the bowl still and you'll see the miso ebb and flow seemingly of its own volition. For a heartier start, we ordered the tonjiru, a miso-based soup served in a covered bowl and stocked with onions, carrots, mushrooms, and slices of pork. The broth was savory and the vegetables sweet, but the pork itself was shriveled and tough.
If you're looking, as I sometimes am, for clean flavors, a simple salmon teriyaki served with sticky white rice might be ideal. Crisp-edged, the moist and flaky salmon had almost been candied by the sugars in the sauce. A slightly more involved dish was a generous stir-fry called yakudon, wheat noodles pan-fried in soy sauce with broccoli, onions, cabbage, carrots, and snow peas. For two dollars extra, one can have beef or shrimp added; I asked for beef but was disappointed in the cut and quality of the meat. Dry and chewy, the beef helped the flavor of the dish but didn't have much merit otherwise.
The most authentic recipe was also the best. Okonomiyaki, described as a seafood and vegetable pancake, was a flat disk made from flour, water, and shreds of the more substantial kinds of seafood -- shrimp, squid, octopus, and the dreaded, ubiquitous crabstick. Mild and light, the pancake had a slight oniony flavor and was dusted with dried bonito, then cut into squares for the diner to pick up and eat. Different, but not overly exotic for tame Coral Gables.
Yasuko's offers one of my all-time favorite desserts, fried cheesecake -- I don't particularly care that it's a Western perversion, the Japanese equivalent to fortune cookies and pineapple chunks. Two cubes of creamy cheesecake were dipped in tempura and dropped in the deep fryer, emerging seconds later. The result is a dessert version of agedashi, a crisp skin barely containing a melting middle.
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Yasuko's premise is plain and up-front: Some authentic Japanese fare, good prices. But for a meal and a story, you'll need to sharpen those people-watching -- and eavesdropping -- skills.
4041 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 444-6622. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday from noon to 3:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 10:45 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:15 p.m.
Yakudon (with beef)