Friday, May 27, 2011

Yokohama: A Taste of Japan at Home

This review originally published on May 25, 2011 at The Brookline Patch

It’s hard to say what surprises me most about the tiny Yokohama Japanese Restaurant in Brookline Village. It’s not the excellent food—though more on that later. It’s not that the restaurant has thrived for years despite being virtually hidden—Yokohama doesn’t even have a website. It’s not that the place reminds me of a grandmother’s apartment: shelves cluttered with vases, plates, books, and potted plants, walls covered in peeling Japanese posters and the occasional kids’ drawing.

I think what surprises me most is that everyone eating there seems like a regular. The owners (who are also the sole employees; he cooks, she serves) greet many of the patrons by name. A couple at the next table raved about the place, how they come here all the time for dinner. A woman comes in, sits at the long sushi counter, and eats leisurely, chatting with the owners. We feel like we’re guests in their home, just over for dinner.

For my first visit, I took a friend who grew up in Japan, and knows her food well.

"We should get the Agedashi Tofu,” she advised. “It’s one of those dishes where if they do it right, I’ll know that all the food here is good."

The dish ($5.50) came, two great slabs of tofu with edges lightly fried, insides as silky as pudding, crowned with green onions, grated ginger, and flakes of bonito. A delicate brown sauce—part soy sauce, part rice vinegar, never too salty—pooled at the bottom of the bowl. My friend nodded slowly as she ate, a smile on her face.

“It’s good,” she said.

When you sit down, the proprietress will plunk a steaming mug of green tea, never bitter, just clean-tasting, onto the table in front of you. If you want something stronger, she’ll direct you to the liquor store around the corner—Yokohama is strictly BYOB.

We began with an appetizer of gyoza pork dumplings ($5.50), perfectly crispy on one side, which came with a graceful ponzu-style dipping sauce; steamed shrimp shumai ($5.50) yielded to the tooth like hot, savory little pillows.  Chicken Yakitori ($5.50), skewers of grilled chicken brushed with thick teriyaki-style sauce, was too dry to bother with, but a well-made appetizer of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($7.95) made up for the yakitori and then some; two tempura shrimp, each longer than my index finger, sat atop a pile of still-crispy vegetables coated with light, never greasy, tempura batter.

And of course, the sushi—fish so fresh it’s buttery, and rice just the right stickiness, where you can still separate each individual grain with your tongue. The Sushi Deluxe Platter ($16.95) gave us a California roll and eight pieces of chef’s selection nigiri, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, red snapper, and egg (tamago). Or, order from a large selection of sushi a la carte; I liked the spicy tuna (tekka) roll ($5) with its fiery mayo, and the Rainbow Roll ($9.75), a popular inversion of maki in which the colorful strips of fish and avocado lay draped over the top of the roll.

The menu offers teriyaki dishes, too, and great bowls of udon: thick noodles with a slight chew swimming in umami-laden miso broth. Bowls range from $10.95 (vegetable, tofu) to $12.95 (seafood, tempura). And while desserts, like green tea ice cream, are listed on the menu, I’m betting that when those traditional slices of sweet orange arrive at your table after your meal, they will be all the dessert you need.

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant is open Monday through Saturday 12pm-2:30pm and 5pm-10pm.  238 Washington Street, Brookline.  MBTA: Green line (D) to Brookline Village.  Cash and credit cards accepted.
Yokohama Sushi on Urbanspoon

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