Tapas All Nippon

Even a few words into this review you might already be thinking, "Geez, she sounds a whole lot less moronic this week." And if the strange symbols on the back of the menu at Yakko-San are to be believed, you might be right. Because on recent visits to this restaurant, which describes its cuisine as "Japanese tapas," my dining partners and I concentrated on ordering items marked on the menu with a mysterious, Masonic-like x, indicating dishes that allegedly "improve the function of the brain." Except for a star-symboled item we tried that ...

Whoa! Let's back up a minute. Owing to my improved brain function, I'm obviously getting ahead of myself. Yakko-San is run by Hiro's Sushi, winner of this publication's 2001 "Best of Miami" readers' poll for best sushi. However Yakko-San serves no sushi. In fact few of the close to 200 mainly appetizer-size, mainly Asian dishes on the menu are even the standard stuff one finds in full Japanese restaurants. One extremely amiable waiter characterized the specialties at this small but stylishly Soho-loft-esque brick space as, "like what we eat at home," and indeed he and most of the eatery's patrons looked Asian. However to me and my party, Yakko-San's specialties were about as far from home cooking as could be imagined; we hadn't the vaguest idea what the heck most dishes were, even when they were translated from Japanese to English.

Spicy Konnyaku Potato Alimentary? Simmered Satoimo Potato Nikkorogashi? What are all these weird potatoes?



17040-44 W Dixie Hwy., North Miami Beach

305-947-0064. Open daily 6:00 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

"I believe I can define Spicy Konnyaku Potato Alimentary," said Liz, who is a lawyer, leaning across the table intently. "You'll note that the menu symbol, a star, is defined as “fiber -- normalizes colon movements.' And in legal parlance, alimentary is the word used when prisoners get strip-searched, meaning that it is a search including the alimentary canal, i.e. the colon." By now, Liz was stabbing the air with her finger, like legal eagles do when they want to emphasize vitally important points to the jurors. "Meaning that here is what this dish is: potato ass."

Well, that certainly clears it up, I thought; I should always bring a lawyer along on these review meals.

"We must have some!" enthused Lindsy. "Definitely!" agreed Liz.

"I'm not touching any potato ass," growled normally game-for-anything Lissette. It was hopeless to stress that this experience would no doubt evolve into a priceless one-of-a-kind story she could tell her unborn children, someday; rather she seemed to feel that if one does hope to bear children someday, there are certain substances one should not risk ingesting, including potato ass. And frankly, she had a point. The dish consisted of about half a dozen cylindrical chunks of gelatinous stuff that had a taste somewhere between seafood and St. Augustine grass, a texture somewhere between quadruple-strength Jell-O and a Gumby stretchable action figure, and a color the gray oil-slick sheen of those things that are always slithering out of sewers in B-grade Japanese horror movies.

But everyone adored the double-x-denoted tuna treats listed in the menu's cold-appetizers section. Maguro nuta was firm strips of glistening dark-red tuna, about one-fourth the size of standard sashimi pieces, mixed with pieces of scallion boiled just enough to tame the onion bite and dressed in an absolutely addictive honey-miso mustard sauce. Maguro salad, a delightful mix of tuna and spicy radish sprouts, arrived with a surprise free upgrade from maguro to the daily special bluefin tuna, almost torolike in its finely fat-marbled texture. A starred third tuna cold plate, yama kake, featuring more weird potatoes, was less popular with our table only because its raw maguro pieces and raw yamaimo potato shreds were bound by raw egg white, an unappetizing substance in terms of texture and appearance.

Goma ae, one of Yakka-San's many vegetarian tapas, was barely boiled, then chilled spinach, dressed in subtle sesame sauce; according to the dish's dual circular and triangular symbols, it's extremely beneficial for producing blood, reducing stress, and helping create strong bones. Starred kinpira gobo proved to be strips of burdock root, a tuber more fibrous and less starchy than potato, that were bathed in thick, intensely reduced salty-sweet soy sauce. Yasai itame mixed Asian vegetables had no noted health benefits but were nevertheless very tasty, quick-sautéed to retain crunch. And crisp tsukemono slices were superior to most Japanese restaurant pickles since Yakko-San's barely brined fresh vegetables are homemade rather than canned.

Also a huge hit were two dishes demonstrating cross-cultural influences: from Japan via Italy, angel hair, perfectly al dente, tossed with a sinful hint of butter and garnished with melt-in-your-mouth fresh sea urchin plus salmon caviar; from Japan via Korea, silky cold tofu squares with a bracing side of spicy, but not overwhelmingly hot, kim chee.

A catch-of-the-day fish special, grouper with chili sauce, came in a thickened variation on the kim chee's coating. The heat was balanced, but with appealing sweet-and-sour overtones. As summer's heat makes even confirmed carnivores crave lighter food, trying dishes that emphasized meat as one of many elements seemed ideal. Garlic stem and beef highlighted surprisingly sweet and mild young shoots of emerald green garlic, flash-fried with tender steak bits. Diced steak with garlic, served on a mesclun salad that was undressed but flawlessly flavored by the steak's salty juices, was not as exotic, but just as tasty.

Responsible restaurant reviewers realize our main job is to be human guinea pigs, so we mostly stuck to stranger-than-sushi tapas, like onagiri: big green-tea-tinged rice balls filled with, or wrapped in, pickled snow cabbage, whole sacks of cod roe, and other Oriental oddities. Still, certain sushi bar standards proved irresistible. Ebi tem, done properly for a change with batters of two different densities coating the deep-fried shrimp and the vegetables, was excellent by itself. The tempura was, however, even better in tem zaru, a dish of Japanese noodles (either wide white-flour udon or chewy, thin buckwheat soba, a highly recommended two-dollar upgrade) served cold but topped with assorted hot tempura. The noodles came with a delightful dipping broth that was basically normal tempura sauce with extra soy and seaweed intensity.

Even more accessible was chicken kara-age: savory battered pieces of ginger-spiked poultry. Though served hot, this deep-fried Asian chicken proved to be amazingly good cold (as was apparent the next day). In fact combined with a few of the restaurant's fried cheesecake rolls (Japanese/Italian/Jewish cheesecake cannolis) for dessert, this Japanese Southern-fried chicken would make for a super summer picnic, not exactly All American but perfectly Multicultural Miamian.


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