Summer is the season of less, and this principle of economy fits well with the current frugality. Current seasonal correctness in restaurants dictates shellfish in summertime and humanely slaughtered animals on consciously heavier menus in fall. While this whirlwind of endless menu changes are the predictable beat in food emporiums around town, some outposts of various cultures simply offer their stalwart menus all year, allowing the diner to choose according to whim.
To me, summer is sushi, rich and robust in taste, not weight. These small bites are as visually appealing as they are tastefully tempting. Traditional sushi, neither the kind doused in excessive sauce nor hiding bits of cream cheese or mayonnaise, has that ephemeral earthy taste of a carrot just plucked from the ground. Yet in Charlotte, evidently, for sushi bars to be good they need to be sexy.
Sexy? While traditional Japanese restaurants with cozy tatami rooms and shakuhachi music are not the only way to go, neither are raucous rooms filled with turquoise-colored snakeskin Manolos. Somewhere in the middle is the hardworking Itamae Yang.
Food lovers have come to revere chefs and murmur words of appreciation when booking elusive reservations at the French Laundry (Napa Valley) or El Bulli (northeastern Spain) or excitedly retelling a chef's table dinner at (insert name of famous chef-driven restaurant). At the same time, taste-obsessed, yet humble, chefs in our midst can be overlooked.
Take Hyunseok Yang, for example. Last November he opened the 90-seat Tokyo Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, his first restaurant venture. Previously this Korean native had been in the construction business, but turned his passion for sushi (yes, Korean and Japanese cuisines do have commonalities) into a business. Yang trained at his cousin's Japanese restaurant in Maryland before coming to Charlotte to open Tokyo. With Yang is his son Paul, who has taken time off from his studies at the University of Georgia to help establish the business.
Itamae Yang commands the sushi bar in the back of the dining area. Tokyo has that modishly stark, yet serviceable, look that a number of other dining establishments have tried in this windswept expanse of asphalt that is Ballantyne, an area which, as some whisper, devours restaurateurs.
Yang's traditional menu is devoid of endless variations of saccharine names such as Queen City or Booming Granny (a sushi item I saw once that had tempura-fried Granny Smith apple slices). Instead, Tokyo's rolls have straight-forward descriptions -- Dragon, Spider, Spicy -- and feature some Americanized items (cream cheese and avocado) as well as the traditional uni, toro, and uzura. Also on the menu are chirashi, a bowl of sushi rice with scattered slivers of raw fish; tempura; teriyaki; and noodles. The wine list is small, unfortunately, but there is a beer list as well.
Even with a language barrier, Yang is convincingly hospitable. He provides customers with complementary dishes and cares about their reaction. Paul Yang notes all his father's sauces are made in-house and says they "use the highest quality ingredients -- even the pickled ginger."
We watched casually from the sushi bar as Yang sliced cucumbers making a pre-meal, entrée-sized amuse for us, as it turned out. Our chatter momentarily ceased and we tasted. Wow. We fell to stunned silence. "Make more," we thought. So we hurriedly checked off a cluster of nigiri and maki, throwing in another salad -- this one with fabulous octopus. The next salvo included some wondrous shumai and an elevated interpretation of una don. Yang seared opulent strips of fresh water eel (unagi), spiking them with a sweet soy-based sauce, and used them to cover a deep bowl of rice. In Japan, unagi is eaten to revitalize the soul from the summer doldrums.
The sushi arrived on a large round platter, not suitable for the narrow sushi counter. Yang had created a swirl of fresh wasabi from a pastry bag and dotted with excellent fried shrimp heads. The soft shell crab tempura was deliciously paired with watermelon on one roll, while another twisted a quartet of fins with crab. I've had better; I've had worse. Next time, though, I'll let Yang decide.
It's not the sushi that will bring you back. It's Mr. Yang. Comfort is an elusive quality; hospitality even more so in this rough and tumble world of restaurants. But Yang seems to exude an unhurried quality and pride of ownership in his dishes that "sexy" sushi just doesn't bring to the plate.