The Scottish Food Review guide to Japanese cuisine brought to you thanks to Yamato.
For some the thought of going to a Japanese restaurant fills them with dread. They think it'll be a confusing experience for someone used to ordering a starter, main course and dessert. The comfortable combination of meat and two veg is an obvious no go. Then to make things worse, there's no cutlery! There's the worry that you have to try and catch your food as you fling it around the place with chopsticks. Not to mention the fact that they wonder whether it's worth the effort, when a dodgy supermarket sushi lunch, complete with plastic fish, is the first thing that springs to mind when a suggestion of Japanese is offered.
If you feel like this let me start by saying, authentic, fresh Japanese food as lovingly prepared as Yamato's is a wondrous thing, definitely worth stepping out of your comfort zone for. But if you are still a little apprehensive about going Japanese don't worry, we've prepared a simple guide to get you as comfortable with chopsticks as Daniel LaRusso.
The commercialised Japanese canteens may convince you that sharing your meal with strangers whilst sat on a wooden bench is enjoyable, Yamato has other ideas. The interior is achingly contemporary, but rooted in classic style. The modern interpretation of shoji, carved out of plywood, the black painted ceilings serving to accentuate the wooden panels and framing, this is all a super modern twist on classic Japanese aesthetic. There are comfy seats so if you want an intimate meal for two, you can. If you have a larger social gathering, and the cuisine is perfect for bigger groups, then there are hidden corners where the restaurant seems to expand, easily accommodating tables of six or eight.
Sake is definitely not for the faint hearted. Whilst you may think of it as rice wine, it is far from Chardonnay. For a start it packs a punch, 15% is diluted! Oh and it can be served warm. Which on a wild Scottish winter night is not a bad idea. The sake is served in a hot water filled pottery flask, with the sake contained inside. The lid serves to keep in the aroma, so leave it on and wait a few minutes for the water to heat the liquid inside. Then open, inhale the scent of sake and then remove the inner container and pour yourself a mouthful. You don't need more than that. Roll the sake around your mouth like a good malt and you'll get a range of flavours, all of which (unsurprisingly) seem to go well with seafood! The sizes and prices may confuse, but a 300ml bottle or carafe is around the twenty pound mark which is what I'd expect to pay for a bottle of wine in an Edinburgh restaurant and will be enough for two people to enjoy throughout the meal alongside plenty of water. At the end of your meal you could have a Yuzu Sake, made from the native Japanese citrus fruit. This is served chilled and as a palate cleanser the flavour, somewhere between lemon and grapefruit is a proper smack in the chops after the delicateness of the Nigiri. You could of course always pick an beer and have a Asahi.
The service was exceptional for everyone that was dining and meets all of my high end restaurant expectations. Coats were whisked off us as we arrived and returned as we stood to leave. The drinks were poured and the water kept full. The table was even crumbed down at the end of the meal after my rudimentary attempts at wielding chopsticks may have left the odd tell tale grain of rice... The staff also know the food, and are more than happy to tell you about it, suggest options and keep you right on quantities, because this is where the fun starts. Japanese dining may well the originators of the "small plate" revolution that is so cool right now. There are no courses, no right dishes to order with other dishes and no order as far as when your dishes arrive, although obviously those that need cooked take a bit longer. Whereas dishes that involve cutting a slice off a particularly tasty fillet of fish takes mere minutes. As a result you miss out on that waiting around between ordering and food arriving, this makes the meal feel much quicker and means your sake is usually warm enough to drink when the first dish arrives, result! Dishes will then be delivered as they are ready, and emply plates cleared, so you have a great chance to speak to the staff about the dishes and learn all about them.
Well, this is the important bit, otherwise we'd be Scottish interior-design-and-service Review. The plates when they arrive look absolutely stunning, forget your mass produced rubbish, the colours and presentation of these dishes are beautiful. The cuts of fish are generous, and as well as the expected tuna and salmon, you can experiment onto Scallops, Octopus and even Sea Urchin.. Don't be thinking it's all raw fish, there are chicken, beef and vegetable dishes, some cooked, some even deep fried in batter (tempura), but mainly it's seafood in one form or another.
Following our usual Scottish way of eating with set courses and typically a love of big chunks of meat, you could make the mistake of thinking, "how will this fill me up, I'll need to order loads". You'll be amazed at how filling all these little dishes can be. You can easily order more later on if you need to, so go easy - start with half a dozen items and take it from there.
The first dish delivered almost immediately were the simple Nigiri, the classic shaped rice block topped with salmon and grilled Scallop. What an introduction, the fish was generously cut and tasted delicious, the rice with that subtle vinegary taste that provides such balance to the topping, was just as tasty. These are good sized portions, two or three bites each and stunning in their simplicity. Whilst I started with a ham-fisted effort to use the provided chopsticks it wasn't long before I decided to simply use my fingers, no one will judge you, so scratch that worry off your list, in fact it's the best way to ensure you don't miss a single grain. This is definitely a great way to dip your toe into the sea of sushi and see how you get on.
Next out was Sashimi, cuts of fresh fish served raw. The toro is the finest fillet from the belly of a tuna served with a hint of wasabi and even some gold leaf, make no mistake this is special. Melt in the mouth special. The rich tuna flavour dissolves in your mouth as it mingles with the warmth of the topping. Stunning.
The Tokyo Roll was our next arrival and this is another perfect dish for those looking for a less challenging choice. Deep fried breaded chicken fillets are nestled alongside fresh avocado and then rolled in rice. The roe topping is the most adventurous element, but don't think that makes this any less tasty. It was delicious and the contrasting crunch of breadcrumbs and smooth avocado only adds to the winning taste pairing that makes chicken and avo so popular. Our roll was split into eight good sized portions and is definitely a good choice for a beginner.
The Gyoza which arrived next is also a safe choice. Think Japanese ravioli, chicken is stuffed into these crescent shaped dough shapes before being pan-fried to a golden brown. The soy and sesame flavoured dipping sauce is a great accompaniment.
The Salmon Panko Maki was another dish of contrasting textures. The maki shows you are getting a rolled sushi, with a filling, in this case salmon, wrapped in rice and rolled in a thin layer of seaweed, or nori. The panko let's you know that crisp flaky bread crumbs will be coating your sushi. This results in a crisp crumbly outer layer surrounding soft rice and salmon. addition of a splash of soy added a bit of oomph to the flavour.
Gunkan Maki is another roll, but in this case the rice sits at the bottom and a topping is held in place by the nori. We were served up an Uni Gunkan, which it turns out is sea urchin. I've spent a good amount of time trying to think how I'd describe the flavour and texture and I'm settling for a salty marshmallow, it wasn't unpleasant, it was just unusual. Regardless, it didn't taste of chicken!
And then along came the octopus. Takoyaki, to be precise, crispy fishcake style balls of chopped octopus with some ginger and onion, served with something that tasted not dissimilar to Worcestershire sauce and mayo and topped with crispy shavings of dried fish. Possibly my favourite dish of the meal, the flavours and textures were amazing,each element bringing a different taste or feel in the mouth.
We waited expectantly for another plate, but then realised that we were actually finished, much to our upset. We had learned many things, Japanese food is more than raw fish and rice. There are flavours and textures you could hardly imagine, you are limited only by your own adventurous-ness, or you can have an amazing meal enjoying simpler tastes. Oh and we learned that the little tea pot and bowls are soy sauce, not for washing your hands....
Yamato was a fantastic experience. The food, which was obviously the focal point, was excellent. But the service and the ambience all helped create a fantastic atmosphere for dining. The delivery of the food is very sociable, although you really need to be willing to share, and you could easily take your partner, best friends or family such is the accessibility of Yamato. It's also not as expensive as you'd think, all our food was around £25 each and we were absolutely stuffed, no room even for dessert. The restaurant may be a bit off the beaten track, between the end of Lothian Road and Bruntsfield, round the side of the Cameo, but it's a heck of a lot closer than Japan, which is possibly where you'd need to go for a more Japanese adventure. A totally impressive meal and a wholehearted recommendation from us. Arigatou gozaimasu!
We were invited to eat and drink at Yamato, but the opinions contained in this guide remain very much ours…