In a city that has an abundance of sushi bars but all too few where the chefs season the rice properly or take the trouble to sauce raw fish to show it to its best advantage, Yutaka Sushi Bistro is a rare gem.
Yutaka Yamato, who opened his tiny Uptown place in 2006, commands the 10-seat sushi bar. He and the sushi chefs assisting him are more likely to greet customers with a scowl than a smile (or not greet them at all), but if you're interested in serious sushi, get over it: You'll eat well here. Meanwhile, the members of his helpful and friendly waitstaff seem to go out of their way to make up for the wan reception.
My favorite way into dinner is ordering sashimi, focusing on the printed list of specials and selecting - perhaps with the help of one of those knowledgeable servers - one of the "sushi tour of Japan" fish it spotlights. Depending on the season, there might be velvety slices of arctic char or silver-edged, umami-rich slabs of shime saba (cured mackerel).
Recently, nearly transparent slices of sayori (halfbeak), each divided by a fine silver-and-black stripe and dressed with a bit of grated ginger and sliced scallion, were a knockout - delicately flavored, with a silken texture, and garnished with the frame of the reed-thin, silvery fish from which they were cut. Shima aji (striped jack), pink-tinged, flecked with silver skin and served with freshly grated wasabi, was terrific, too. The presentations are gorgeous.
As the sushi tour offerings are so special, I tend to stick with them as I jump into ordering nigiri sushi (the kind that's a slice of fish atop a bite-size pad of rice), as well - at least to begin with. In the course of three visits over the past four months, I've often been as wowed by the sushi as I was when I first reviewed the restaurant in 2010.
On the first two visits, the rice, served barely warm (around body temperature, which is ideal) was well-seasoned, with a faint and pleasant vinegar tang; more recently I found it to be a tad underseasoned. Wasabi was applied judiciously, and nori (seaweed) was always crisp. Best of all, unlike many sushi bars where the fish is simply sliced and flopped naked onto the rice, Yamato enhances many of them with a sauce or cure, as fitting for each fish. The staff is careful to communicate to diners which items may be dipped in shoyu (soy sauce), and which are already sauced.
Another strong point: There's an excellent range of fish on offer, from delicate shirome (white fish), to crustaceans such as Alaskan king crab, to hikari-mono (shiny fish) such as aji (horse mackerel), and it's always expertly sliced.
Aka ebi - red shrimp, served raw - had a beautiful, creamy texture, though the tempura treatment of their accompanying heads was a bit clunky. Flounder fin, suggested by a server, was soft and delicate, topped with a dot of tangy-piquant yuzu kosho (chile-citrus condiment); our sushi chef had gently charred the tops of each slice and the edges of the rice with a blowtorch to striking effect. Yellowtail was superb, buttery and rich, and uni (sea urchin roe) from San Diego was spectacular, served as nigiri rather than wrapped with a nori collar as is more usual.
Highly marbled, glistening slices of raw Joshu Wagyu beef have been offered lately as nigiri sushi, and it's pretty incredible: rich and butter-soft, with fabulous flavor. Joshu is a brand of Wagyu from Japan's Gunma prefecture; our server proudly displayed for us the numbered certificate for the cow in question, complete with noseprint.
One January evening, my husband and I asked for omakase, a chef's choice tasting menu. There seemed to be a question about whether it was possible that evening. As reservations are accepted only for parties of six or more and only at 6:45 or earlier, we didn't have one, so didn't think to request omakase in advance (as it turns out, you can). But Yamato agreed, leading off with an assortment of sashimi, including fine toro (fatty tuna belly), maguro (tuna) and a piece of uni wrapped in a thin slice of red snapper, with fresh wasabi. Next came a kale salad with caramelized Brussels sprouts in a tangy dressing showered with slivers of dried anchovy and garnished with daikon sprouts and tempuraed strings of shirouo (ice goby) - fine, but it lacked pizazz.
Much more compelling was dobinmushi, a clear soup served in individual dobins, teapot-like soup vessels; you pour the soup into a little cup and sip it. Yamato's version, a fish broth brightened with umeboshi plum and given depth by shiitake mushrooms, was absolutely exquisite. Once we finished sipping it, we were instructed to eat what was left in the pot: the mushrooms, the umeboshi, a piece of Japanese snapper, a few daikon sprouts. Wow.
That was followed by slices of cooked king mackerel on braised kohlrabi greens topped with tonburi (herb seeds known as "land caviar"), then a succession of six nigiri sushi and penultimately a perfect hand roll of chopped toro - fatty tuna belly, in this case from farm-raised bluefin tuna.
Though Yamato, who stood before us behind the sushi bar, took charge of everything, our interaction with him was minimal, and though he was cordial, I don't remember him cracking a smile. Until we asked him about the excellent dessert: small rectangles of his mother's fruitcake. The chef perked up as he told us about how she makes it, soaking the fruit in copious amounts of cognac. He added that he had cured the fruitcake for more than a year and a half.
The omakase, for which we were charged $100 per person, was very good, though not astoundingly so.
Assigning a star rating to Yutaka isn't easy. Besides the sashimi and sushi, I generally found the rest of the offerings well-prepared but lackluster, with few fresh ideas - not what you'd look for in a four-star restaurant. A white mushroom salad with "spicy vinaigrette" lacked zing; black cod shumai were pretty, but their filling was bland; tempura should have been more light and delicate; Ishiyaki Washu Kobe beef cooked on the table on a hot river stone was more dramatic than delicious.
On the other hand, Yutaka serves what I consider to be easily the best sushi in Dallas proper, and it is a sushi bar. Therefore I'm choosing to assess it primarily as a sushi bar rather than as a full-on restaurant. As such, it deserves a four-star rating.
Yutaka Sushi Bistro (4 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (lunch appetizers, soups and salads $3 to $16, main courses $9.50 to $18.50; dinner cold dishes and tempura $6 to $18, hot dishes $3 to $22; nigiri sushi $3.50 to $9, sashimi $9.50 to $19, sushi rolls $4.50 to $25; dessert $5 to $9; omakase $80 per person and up)
Service: The servers, knowledgeable about the food and the sake list, are welcoming, friendly and attentive - in stark contrast to the stony-faced sushi chefs.
Ambience: An intimate 10-seat sushi bar with a few tables with uncushioned wooden banquettes
Noise level: Quiet enough for easy conversation
Location: 2633 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-969-5533; yutakasushibistro.com
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:45 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:45 to 11 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more and only for 6:45 or earlier
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Wine, beer and a well-chosen list of 16 sakes, most of which are available by both the bottle and the masu (wooden box that's used to drink from). A moderately priced, fairly interesting list of 25 wines includes five sparklers, with 12 of the still wines offered by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor