Sushi is his specialty
A kimono-wearing waitress greeted us with a hot damp towel, and set down a snack of carrot and celery sticks with a blob of creamy dressing. From behind the counter, we could see the chef adding bits of wasabi and ginger to a gorgeous platter of raw fish, his caricature framed on the wall behind him, with the words "The world’s best sushi chef!"
Yamagata was off to a promising start. Kunio "Yama" Koyama opened the small restaurant in November after leaving his post as the longtime sushi chef of Koyama in Edgewater. He’s retained the modern look of the 30-seat strip-mall spot on Palisades Avenue that was previously home to Chef Ji’s Moonjar (and after that, Moonjar) — concrete floor, big globe lights and, now, a television playing Japanese TV.
Koyama cuts a striking figure behind the sushi bar, a handkerchief tied around his bald head. The native of Japan offers a long menu of cooked foods that includes exactly what you’d expect (chicken teriyaki, tempura) and some you wouldn’t (miso-marinated eggplant, tempura-battered spicy scallops wrapped in shiso and seaweed).
But Yamagata’s focus is on the sushi. And much of it was among the most memorable I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Rich, oily tuna toro and melt-in-your-mouth tuna, both garnished with a small knob of minced fish. A rainbow roll like none other, topped with light, silky sashimi. A thin ribbon of beautiful mackerel curled artfully atop rice. By the way, one bite of the rice and I was transported back to my Japanese grandmother’s kitchen, fanning a pot, being lectured about how the perfect combination of vinegar and sugar resulted in something that tasted exactly like Yamagata’s.
But it’s not all hot towels and snacks here. Yamagata has a bit of a Soup Nazi undercurrent, maybe because it’s so small and already hard to get into on the weekends (call early for reservations).
On a busy Friday night, our party of three was crammed in at a table meant for two. When a manager heard me complaining, he flippantly replied "Sorry!" in the least apologetic manner possible. We felt a little more fortunate once we saw two other parties of three huddled around even smaller tables that were even more awkwardly situated.
But then we realized that a big table in the corner that could have seated at least four people was being occupied by only two men — who were visited personally by Koyama.
Is the sushi worth it? It certainly was at times. But be prepared to pay for it — that rainbow roll was $17, and it gets worse ordered by the piece — you’re looking at $3 for one slice of salmon. We paid $11 per piece of toro, and the evening we ordered it a la carte, it was perfect. But our $65 platter of 25 pieces, billed as "chef’s finest selection," included stringy, chewy toro — though it also included the exceptional mackerel and tuna, and artfully cut yellowtail, atop a dab of wasabi and a shiso leaf.
Of the cooked food, our favorites were the traditional Japanese small plates that start your meal in style. In particular, do not miss the yellowtail neck ($13.50), an impossibly moist and tender cut served with a pile of grated daikon — and a sauce that was surprisingly snatched away by the wait staff before we finished the dish. Pork katsu (fried, breaded pork cutlet) was crisp and moist ($16.50), but tempura udon soup was filled with gluey noodles ($14.50). Cold side dishes like shredded gobo root ($6.50) and the colorful Japanese pickles known as oshinko ($6.75) complete your meal. Desserts are an afterthought, but there is a cakey tempura green tea ice cream ($7.50).
Beware coming here without a basic knowledge of the cuisine — when we tried to pose questions to the waitresses, we ran into a language barrier, and when we asked for recommendations, they barely went further than your basic edamame.
But for those who long for the most traditionally prepared Japanese food possible, Yamagata will be a welcome addition to North Jersey.
Yamagata ** 1/2
1636 Palisades Ave, Fort Lee; 201-585-0469
Food: Good, often extraordinary sushi and traditional Japanese dishes.
Ambience: Small, modern sushi bar.
Service: Not particularly eager to please or helpful with the menu.
Value: Expensive, particularly for raw fish, though the quality can be impressive. Appetizers $5.50 to $13.50 (one, aji tataki, is $18.50), entrées $9.50 to $28.50 (platters that can serve two or more run $55 to $65).
Would be good for: Those seeking traditional Japanese cuisine.
Less appropriate for: Those watching their wallet.
Recommended dishes: Sushi, yellowtail neck, spicy scallops, pork katsu.
Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Liquor, wine: BYO.
Noise level: Lots of conversation – you may be sitting very close to your neighbors.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V.
Reservations: Accepted. Reserve early for peak times.
Accommodations for children: None.
Early-bird specials or deals: No.
Reviewed: March 23, 2012.
About the ratings
In determining ratings, each restaurant has been compared with others of the same type and level of ambition. Reviewers make at least two anonymous visits to a restaurant, and the newspaper always pays the tab.
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