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Dramatic Japanese Dining at Yamato

It’s hard to beat the teppan yaki

Posted: August 6, 2009 4:19 p.m.
Updated: August 7, 2009 6:05 a.m.

A colorful assortment of sushi at Yamato, served at the sushi bar, included squid, crab, salmon, tuna, yellowtail, whitefish, and more.

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For dining with a dramatic flair, it's hard to beat teppan yaki.

The traditional Japanese cuisine of freshly grilled goodies, ranging from seafood to steak to vegetables, is prepared right in front of guests on a sizzling grill or teppan, seductively seasoned, and served piping hot.

At Yamato, which is celebrating its ninth year at its Stevenson Ranch location, teppan chef Hector Arriaga pulls out all the stops, stacking up freshly cut onion slices into a volcano, lighting a match, and creating a two-foot high flame.

Arriaga's hands move with blazing speed as he scrambles an egg for the delectable fried rice and flips shrimp tails into the top of his very tall hat.

Whether it's a dinner for two or a birthday party for the kids, this is crowd-pleasing fare, according to manager Richard Pak.
"The whole theme of Yamato is celebratory," Pak said. "Our restaurant can be very romantic, yet we also provide a family atmosphere."

The gracious ambiance of Yamato, which has seven restaurants in Southern California, from Camarillo to Costa Mesa, starts when you enter the gates in front of the pagoda-style exterior. A soothing waterfall feeds water into a running stream, stocked with some very well-fed koi, dazzling in shades of gold and white.

Inside, the dark wood accents and deep red walls create a feeling of warmth. To the right is a full bar where a projector screen shows the latest sports games each weekend and specialty cocktails are on offer at reasonable prices.

"We have Grey Goose martinis for $7 and we're working on a special bar menu," Pak said.

To the left, under the glow of immense paper lanterns, diners crowd around the vivacious sushi bar. A revolving belt of sushi parades by each setting. Diners can pick up their favorite sushi, ranging in price from $1.25 for a crab cake to $4.75 for a sweet shrimp or Hawaiian roll.

Decadent profiteroles and chocolate éclairs also whiz by. "The kids love them," Pak said.

If they don't see what they want, guests can order directly from the accommodating chefs. A neon sign announces the chef and daily sushi specials. Takeout platters are available for $40 to $60 and feed up to five people.

According to Pak, Yamato's fish is delivered daily by a supplier who sources the catch from Los Angeles fish markets.

That freshness is evident, from colorful plates of sashimi and sushi produced behind the counter. Salmon, tuna, yellowtail, seared tuna, albacore and whitefish were clean, light and pleasing to the palate. There's a slight, welcome ocean essence and luscious texture in each silky bite.

Major points for presentation, too - some sashimi items are molded into delicate floral shapes, others in fluid abstracts, accompanied by matchstick pieces of carrot and tiny tangles of sprouts, a vibrant green plastic "fence" separating the sections.
Just beyond the sushi bar, Yamato boasts 13 teppan tables, large stainless steel cooking surfaces surrounded by wood counters and comfortable chairs. During a weekday lunchtime visit, over half were filled, many with young moms and their children.

"It's very affordable and we provide generous portions. I eat a fair amount and I can never finish my teppan yaki," Pak said. "Plus, Japanese food is very healthy. The oil we use is soybean, which is much better than what you find at most fast food or other restaurants, and there are a large portion of vegetables in each order."

Teppan yaki lunches start at $9.95 for the chicken and steak combo to $14.95 for filet mignon and shrimp and up to $23.95 for a seafood-lovers medley of lobster, scallops and swordfish, with 14 variations to choose from. All are served with miso soup, rice, and a green salad.

At dinnertime, prices increase $5 to $10 per selection from the lunch menu, with a mixed veggies and tofu steak option for non-carnivores available at $14.95 or the decadent deluxe combo of New York steak, shrimp and lobster at $33.95. "Yamato Kids" dinners range from $8.95 to $12.95.

The popular filet mignon and lobster, an Asian-style surf and turf for $31.95, features tender, melt in your mouth meat and succulent lobster served back in its tail, complete with a pool of tantalizing garlic butter swimming in the shell. The simple preparation style belies its complex, savory flavors, the aroma of which intoxicates before served.

All teppan yaki dinners include miso soup, green salad, a shrimp appetizer, hibachi vegetables, and steamed rice (fried rice available for $2 more).

Fried rice is $1.50 extra at lunch ($2 at dinner) and worth every cent. Steamed white rice hits the table with a crackle and is quickly "fried" up with egg, tiny bits of fresh vegetables, and Yamato chef seasonings.

Like everything that comes off the sizzling surface, there's a magnificent blast of umami, the elusive fifth taste recently added to the primary quartet of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, that permeates the senses.

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