By Helen Schwab
The Charlotte Observer
Yama Asian Fusion is Japanese food, not Asian fusion – and pretty straightforward Japanese at that.
That’s particularly true of its sushi, a traditional lineup that runs from the familiar to the less-often-offered: uni (sea urchin) and rarer cuts of tuna, such as the fattier chutoro and fattiest otoro. Simple maki (rolls) and hand rolls (larger, one-piece rolls that look like ice cream cones) also abound.
Yes, there are nearly three dozen “special” rolls, but even these lean more toward tried and true combinations – say, eel and cucumber – than the crazy (though it does include “Crazy Tuna roll”).
That, says owner Birdie Yang, is because Yama’s head chef, Larry Yang, is a stickler for tradition when it comes to sushi. Larry is Birdie’s father, and though the family is from Fujian province in China, the elder trained as a sushi chef and counts New York’s Hatsuhana in the ’80s among his gigs. Larry, says Birdie, “always wanted to show how (sushi) is done… You don’t need sauces (etc.); you wouldn’t try to change the natural flavor of the fish.”
But “he loves (fusion) on the kitchen side.”
The “kitchen” side means cooked fare, and Yama’s lineup of entrees, says Birdie Yang, is slowing moving toward fusion, food he dubs “out of whack” – more playful.
“We’re (saying) ‘What ingredients can Americans accept with fish?’ Grilled whole fish, steamed fish … and some non-normal dishes: rack of lamb, grilled steaks with Asian twists.”
In the meantime, the entrée list offers several vibrant plates: Hot Spring Fish, for example, a lovely, thick slab of Chilean sea bass steamed with ginger and scallion. Black Cod Yama Style brings pan-seared fish with pineapple or black bean sauce. Teriyaki salmon is glazed with the first teriyaki sauce I’ve ever found to really suit the fish, less sweet and more balanced.
Yama offers the usual lineup of hibachi entrees (chicken, beef, shellfish) and a sizable appetizer list, with Chinese shrimp shu mai among the Japanese gyoza and edamame and tataki.
Try the James Island: cubed tuna tossed with a slightly spicy sauce, with avocado and daikon, or naruto: a form of crab-and-avocado sushi that replaces the usual nori wrapper with thin-sliced cucumber. Less successful: salmon with mango and honey-yuzu dressing.
Also of note: An omakase menu starting at $100 per person. This “trust the chef” menu requires a week’s notice, and rather than chef’s choice of what’s in house, involves kitchen collaboration with the person making the reservation. Business people, mostly, arrange for this about once a month and naturally – because it’s fun, high-end and they get to “bring in cool stuff” – the folks at Yama would love to do more of them.
Also high-end: Birdie Yang’s interest in and proliferation of sake.
He’s got training-wheel sakes – Tenryo and Dassai 50 daiginjos (that’s a classification) run less than $30 per 300-ml bottle and “will turn a non-sake-drinker into a sake-drinker pretty much instantly.” He’s also got the $180 720-ml bottles for the discriminating sake drinker, and offers occasional tastings and specials.
Yama (it means “mountain”), opened in 2007 in the somewhat-hard-to-find shopping that houses Earth Fare and tiny upscale shops, offers diversity in setting: There’s a small bar, a sushi bar, a small dining room in the front and a larger one in the back, plus the patio.
Lots of hard surfaces, from hardwood floors and tables to stacked bamboo-look dividers to multi-layered walls and windows flattened like shoji screens, mean it can be loud. Try the back dining room if you seek quieter space.
Yama is carving an interesting niche: strong in classics but not quiet or formal; aiming at adventurous entrees, but avoiding trendy sushi. Does it sound like you? Seek it out.