Restaurant Reviews

Yutaka, Once Part of Uptown's One-Two Punch, Still Stands Alone

It was hardly in good taste, considering even the most relaxed interpretations of the Japanese tradition. Izakayas are where businessmen hole up after work, sometimes spending hours nibbling on grilled skewers of meat and snacks, and washing away the day's stress sipping sake and beer. It's not the sort of place you warm up before heading out to a polished sushi restaurant, just like you wouldn't pound Buds and eat chili dogs at Ships before heading downtown to the French Room.

I ignored common convention because common convention is boring, but also because everyone else was doing the same thing, drinking beer at Sharaku while waiting for their cell phones to buzz and alert them that Yutaka, the sushi joint a few doors down, was ready for them. You grabbed a seat at the bar, and you sipped from a tall Sapporo, and you ordered small grilled skewers of meat to keep your stomach from digesting itself. The old man working the grill looked like he was nearing 100 years old when you caught his eye, and he fanned the flames of red-hot coals releasing embers that zipped about like drunken fireflies. It was hypnotizing. The only thing that could break the spell was that buzzing phone in your pocket. That or an empty beer glass.

Yutaka Yamato opened Sharaku in 2009, as a complement to his eponymous sushi restaurant. Both occupied tiny spaces in an Uptown strip mall, a boutique tucked like fresh mackerel between them. The wait for Yutaka got so long some evenings that customers would hang out next door eating Kurobuta pork and chicken gizzards from blackened sticks of bamboo. In one of the blandest neighborhoods in Dallas — where the most popular restaurant might be Jake's Hamburgers — you could get grilled chicken skins, hearts and cartilage. The place was magical.

And then it was gone. WHY? Sharaku closed in May of this year; Yutaka, though, pressed on. And after sitting sushi shiva for a few months, I recently spent an entire weekend at the sushi bar, to assess the health of the restaurant after losing its dance partner, and to gorge recklessly on raw fish.

The restaurant opens at 5:45 p.m. and it's only a matter of minutes before customers start trickling in. The dining room is completely full by 7 , with the hostess taking names and phone numbers at the door. By 8 p.m., it's a zoo, and with Sharaku gone the new Bowen House enjoys much of Yutaka's spillover. Customers now walk across the street to have a drink and wait.

The wait is a short price to pay for the chance to perch at this sushi bar. Everything in the case is neatly trimmed and brightly colored — a rainbow of impeccably presented fish. Scan the case while you clean your hands with a warm terrycloth towel and formulate your game plan. You can order with a pen and a slip of paper used at most sushi restaurants, or, if you can get the attention of one of the chefs, order directly from the bar.

The "sushi tour of Japan" makes a perfect way to get to know the flavors of Yutaka. For $20 you're presented five cuts, chosen at the discretion of the chef: a slice of toro blasted by a blow torch that melts away to nothing in your mouth in seconds; a pedestrian presentation of Spanish mackerel with ginger and scallions; buttery arctic char; snapper that conceals a secret sliver of shiso leaf; and flounder fin, prized for its unique bouncy texture, also bearing a kiss from the chef's torch.

Presentations also include tiny daubs of Sriracha sauce and paper-thin slices of chile for a fresh, green heat. Whatever cuts you choose, don't miss the uni served simply on a pillow of rice. It's outstanding.

The less adventurous can settle right in with a number of rolls prepared with crisper than usual sheets of nori that snap when they encounter your teeth. Hand rolls showcase the texture of the seaweed sheets particularly well and if you're still hungry toward the end of your meal, they are a great way to wrap things up.

The rest of the menu, meanwhile, is just as impressive. It's divided into hot and cold sides, and it contains small, appetizer-sized plates and full-sized entrees as well. Look around the dining room and you'll see diners leaning over shared plates of black cod flanked with a succession of dots of white miso. If you're good with your chopsticks, you can separate one flake from the filet at a time, drag it through the miso and relish in its sweetness.

There's "Kobe" beef (it's American Wagyu, really) that's served in a bowl so hot it sizzles until long after you've finished eating it. You're instructed to stir up the ingredients with your chopsticks, releasing a cloud of steam and smoke that perfumes the entire dining room. Look at the diners waiting in and around the four chairs at the front of the restaurant as you agitate the bowl. They are hungry. They envy you.

And they should. Most of the plates are every bit as good as the impressive sushi that's served here. Don't miss the seaweed salad with cool and crisp cucumber. Or the Hamachi kama, or yellowtail collar. Everyone who's eaten a whole fish knows the best meat is up near the head. Here, the bones around the neck are isolated, carefully grilled and served simply with grated daikon and a wedge of lemon. It's this sort of simplistic cooking that defines the Japanese style and picking up the bones to gnaw at what you couldn't isolate with your chopsticks is irresistible.

Across three visits, I only found a few errors at Yutaka. The sushi rice was under-seasoned and loosely packed on one visit, nearly falling apart beneath the fish it was meant to cradle, while on other nights it was perfectly seasoned and plenty sticky. A baby octopus tempura was underwhelming too, with thick breading that recalled a State Fair funnel cake. Everything else I ate blew me away. I wish Sharaku had impressed customers with the same intensity.

The closing of Sharaku was a significant loss; that little izakaya was one of the most interesting restaurants in Uptown, a collection of grilled oddities and casual dishes that were treated with the same reverence I've seen at some fine dining restaurants around town. Thankfully, even though the two restaurants were closely linked, Sharaku didn't bring down its sibling Yutaka as it tumbled. And based on the bustling dining room and a glistening piece of mackerel that won't leave my memory, Yutaka sits on a very safe foundation.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz