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Seriously Speaking

Yutaka is a startling sensual experience for the mouth and the eyes.
Tom Jenkins

Yutaka is nothing if not a hole in the wall—a postmodern orifice at that. Bored out of a strip mall just north of the Hard Rock Café on McKinney Avenue, Yutaka has massive floor-to-ceiling pipes with huge bolts secured to fittings with large nuts. The pipes crowd out the cash register platform, pushing it out into the dining room. Large gauges denote readings, pressures no doubt. The floor is concrete. The chairs are black. The parking is tight.

Yet twigs and bamboo accents are included to leaven the industrial minimalist demeanor—the Bufferin of interior design, especially that of westernized Asia. Though the open kitchen behind the sushi bar is a blur of polished stainless steel with the concomitant burners, nozzles and air-circulation portals, the sushi bar itself is a tree trunk, roughly sliced and thickly lacquered. Savor the contrasts.

Black cod with miso rests on a banana leaf. It's beautiful, really: a flawless supple leaf, slightly curled and grappling delicately with a diminutive section of fish. A pickled ginger root, jutting like a spear, is propped up against the section. Dots of thick blond miso are ordered off in one corner. It's daunting in its delicacy; you imagine it takes something more precise than fingers to execute. The meat peels away in clean shingles when pinched with chopsticks. It spreads sweet and briny in the mouth, slyly harboring its musky fume until the finish.

On the edge of the sushi bar is a basket of chips—curled, mottled things that look like pork rinds gone Barry Bonds. They're flounder chips, and they're deployed in a remarkable way. The fish is sliced thin, fried and then served cold with a dab of Japanese guacamole—avocado blended with jalapeño, octopus and spicy mayonnaise—pressed into the base of the chip. The chips are propped vertically against a bamboo stalk that rests on a long, black plate. Rather than fishy, the chips are mild, crisp and salty, though they slap the palate with a much broader spread than a simple corn chip would.

Yutaka's sushi bar can be tight. Chilled sake is dispensed from large bottles, and the servers wedge the sweaty green or amber bottles between shoulders when replenishing the square wood drinking implements that are filled to overflowing so that the abundance can be captured in a saucer underneath to replenish the box when need be. Another ritual is born, though this is no doubt ancient.

Named after chef-owner Yutaka Yamato, who has worked at the Mercury, the defunct Citizen and Nobu in the Crescent, Yutaka speaks in a serious voice. Each example is not only a compelling aesthetic object (a visual process that can be overwrought in less skilled mitts), it is a startling sensual experience in the mouth as well. Example: uni, or sea urchin gonads. Instead of wrapping the sushi rice in a sheet of nori (dried roasted seaweed) and pouring the often runny sea urchin parcels into the resultant shallow cup, the uni is draped simply over a finely honed rice billet. It's that firm. In the mouth, the long, slightly roughened strip, blunted on one end while the other tapers into a point, is a little like eating a svelte tongue—a deliciously creamy svelte tongue.

But alas, consistency slips a little on this count. A second order was prepared by another chef not named Yutaka, and the same firm, creamy strip was deposited in the traditional nori-formed cup.

But this hiccup aside, the rest of the sushi is just as remarkable, from the brilliantly cool and tender squid, as texturally riveting as a perfectly cooked piece of pasta; to the vibrant and silky hamachi (yellowtail); to the thinly delicate tako (octopus) that releases a slightly briny smokiness on the finish.

Scan the menu: Kobe beef on hot river stones; shrimp and whitefish stuffed shitake mushrooms; and hamachi kama or yellowtail collar. Yutaka's menu is like a minimalist Tei Tei bill of fare, with similarly alluring and exacting components. But Yutaka is a little less hip, a lot less edgy and therefore a bit more embracing.

Yutaka's foie gras far surpasses any sampled at any Japanese restaurant as of late, or anywhere for that matter. It's sculpted with reverence. The lobe is placed on a pedestal of braised daikon radish—an altar, really—resting in a thin pool of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) marmalade, with looping coils of yuzu zest seemingly swimming in the clear shimmering marmalade like animated filaments. The lobe is expertly grilled with perfectly placed marks, as if the organ had been woven instead of grown and swelled. It's luxuriously creamy and nutty-rich, its form firm and stable instead of runny and capricious. Not surprisingly, the dish is delivered with a knife and fork, as dismantling the radish stub would be impossible with chopsticks. The pieces are smoky and juicy.

Yet Yutaka doesn't completely dispense with hip. Soft lounge music lolls from speakers embedded somewhere, loud enough to pick through the beats yet throttled enough to allow conversation void of harsh effort. Tables hold groups and couples, while the bar seems to be a shuttling string of singles with a single-minded purpose: Yutaka enrichment.

Someone brings Yutaka a pair of martini glasses, frosted and fogging from a deep, hard chill. He meticulously fills them with stubborn vegetables shaved into paper, and shellfish fanned and folded.

When the martini sunomono salad arrives, the glass is no longer frosted, but it is cold to the touch, keeping its contents crisp and fresh. These would be octopus, shrimp, fish, seaweed, pickled carrot, cucumber and crab. Real crab. It's assembled with forceful intent: ceviche elevated to uncommon loftiness.

Whole squid is spread across a long slender plate, the body sliced into thin loops, brown with a scorched exterior grilled into barely perceptible crispness. Tentacles are lopped off at the end, leaving just suction-cupped stumps. The meat is tender and chewy with a wisp of ginger creeping through the chewing rhythm.

The capstone Yutaka moment is a sampler of sorts, a daring one that is more space than edible substance. Dubbed Japanese antipasto, this sculpted appetizer is simple: slices of heirloom tomato interwoven with shisho leaf (Japanese mint) over dabs of balsamic vinegar reduction opposite a tiny Japanese mountain peach. Between these points is a simple tea-like cup holding a piece of pork with a pepper draped over the top. The small section of meat is like pulled pork, juicy with hearty fibers.

A row of baby octopus, lightly coated in a fried tempura batter, blooms like coarsened blossoms from a slip of paper spread on the plate. Their bodies taper, and the tentacles struggle from the tempura cloak like withering petals. The meat is firm but not rubbery. Flavor bursts through the crunch, soy sake being the culprit.

Kobe beef tataki is like cold cuts: seared ovals slipping from gray to pink to rose as the center is impeded upon. They rest in a brisk dressing with a Fuji apple and a micro-green salad. In the mouth, these ovals are smooth and creamy, delicate slices without a hint of sinew or cantankerous fat deposits. It's like eating cream.

This is the language of Yutaka; a serious voice that easily translates into what is among the finest restaurants in Dallas. Top three anyway.

2633 McKinney Ave., Suite 140, 214-969-5533. Open for lunch 11:45 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Open for dinner 5:45-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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Yutaka Sushi Bistro

2633 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75204

214-969-5533

www.yutakasushibistro.com


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