My Japanese friend who recommended Yotsuba is not crazy about Japan. In fact, when we dined there in October, we were celebrating her attainment of American citizenship and her change to a thoroughly American first name.
The new Kelly says that Japan is too conformist, too sexist, too ready to avoid controversial topics. She was therefore a "bad kid," who got out as soon as she could. She does give Japan credit for its spectacular food, though — and she says Yotsuba is great.
The restaurant, which has a twin in Ann Arbor (2222 Hogback Rd., 734-971-5168), serves both sushi and an extensive menu of cooked foods. To keep my task as a reviewer manageable, I stuck with the warm items, but the three white-hatted chefs behind the sushi bar were keeping busy, and the restaurant says that its guests order about half and half.
The standard Japanese meal includes soup, rice, pickles and usually three other dishes, each cooked a different way. Each dish is served separately and presented beautifully (go to yotsuba-restaurant.com to see some gorgeous pictures). We constructed this type of meal by ordering from the list of 41 appetizers, eight salads and eight soups, all of them sized generously.
Kelly always orders the asparagus and avocado salad, topped with a tangle of finely shredded carrot and white turnip strands. It’s hard to miss with these two main ingredients, but what makes this dish is the carrot dressing, for which The New York Times serendipitously printed a recipe soon after. Peachy-colored and thick, this is certainly one of the best salad dressings I’ve had:
Put the following into a food processor: 1/4 cup peanut or corn oil; 1/4 cup rice vinegar; 3 tablespoons white miso; 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil; 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut up; an inch-long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into coins. Blend till smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Yields 1-1/4 cup.
It shouldn’t be necessary to add that the salad, like everything else, is lovely to look at. The colors complement each other as well as the tastes do. There is no tossed salad in Japanese cuisine; arranged is the word.
Equally wonderful on the eyes and on the tongue is gyoza (dumpling) soup, with a subtly spicy broth, thin slices of pink-edged fish paste and a poached egg. This dish epitomizes the ability of Japanese chefs to make food that satisfies without heaviness.
We liked our salmon tartare, which comes with translucent, peach-colored salmon roe that burst in your mouth with fish flavor. On top, the tiny shiny black roe are from flying fish. A garlic and ponzu sauce on the side adds yet another counterpoint. Even the rice cake had a subtle flavor of its own, nothing like the dry imitations of cardboard that American babies are given to gum on.
An eggplant dish, yakinasu, proved that eggplant need not be breaded or fried in cups of oil. Grilled, it retained a pale green color and a definite eggplant flavor, with a very soft texture (too babyish for me).
I found chicken yakitori ("a staple") good but less interesting; it was smoky with a sweetish sauce.
Another night, it was both freezing outside and the night the Tigers lost the Series, a good excuse for a small pottery pitcher of warm sake. Sake is technically a beer, since it’s made from rice (beers are made from grain, wine from fruit), but its alcohol content is 15 to 17 percent. Yotsuba serves it in tiny handle-less cups, and its unusual, not-really-sweet taste helped chase the blues.
We ate more asparagus, this time grilled, wrapped in beef and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. We ate soft-shell crabs in a light tempura — other nationalities, take note: This is what "breading" should be like. The richest dish was scallops in a peach-colored and slightly charred cream sauce, imbued with sea flavors and garnished with avocado and crab.
What could be a better comfort food than big, fat, slippery udon — wheat noodles — served in a kettle full of fine broth with a poached egg, carrots and mushrooms? The earthy flavor was almost embarrassingly sensual, and the added shrimp tempura did not dissolve into the soup but maintained its integrity and flavor throughout. Kelly says that in Japan, you are supposed to slurp your noodles; if you don’t, the cook may think you’re not enjoying the meal.
Yotsuba, which means "four-leaf clover," is easy on the eyes and ears, with blond wood furniture, a tinkling flow of water in a little grotto, and spare, graceful place settings. Seating on the floor, at low wooden tables, is available for those who want to experience that aspect of Japanese culture. There are dug-outs for your legs, though, so it’s not entirely different or difficult.
Karaoke begins after 10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, with a selection ranging from North and South America to Asia — and most of those who partake are Americans.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].