Friday, April 22, 2011

Yami Sushi House

"Relativity teaches us the connection between the different descriptions of one and the same reality." Albert Einstein
When someone tells me about great sushi they've had in Prague, I register little outwardly. Inwardly, I feel the deepest, darkest skepticism.

I, too, once hoped and believed I'd find fine raw fish, expertly prepared, and creatively created, somewhere in the Czech capital. Now, I take reports of super sushi as greatly exaggerated. To me, they sounds like a snipe hunt.

So when a well-traveled and worldly friend told me he was loving the sushi set at Yami Sushi House, I felt all the usual dismissiveness. But it had been a while since I'd had Japanese food and I decided to give it a whirl.

I'd been to the restaurant in Old Town years ago, before its long-term closure for reconstruction.I didn't recall much except they had a decent variety of sushi rolls on the menu.

I went three times and the restaurant was pretty much always full.Tables did seem to turn over fast, but it's not a big place.Reservations are recommended.

On the first visit, I started off with soft-shell crab tempura (175 CZK).This is one of my favorite dishes and it was perfect. The tempura coating on the two small crustaceans was hot and lightly crisp.The crab underneath was fresh and crunchy.

There was a sweet soy dip on the side.To my mind, this crab was an absolute bargain. Besides Sansho, the only other place I've seen soft-shell crab is at SaSaZu. While I loved their version, it now costs 195 CZK for a portion half the size of Yami's.

There are a wide variety of rolls on the menu. I decided to go for the Rainbow Roll (296 CZK).This was barbecued eel, shrimp, tuna, salmon, butterfish, red snapper, and avocado, on top of a roll filled with what they call "crab cream" and more avocado.

The good news is that the fish was all excellent -- very fresh. The tuna was particularly good. The whole thing was a large portion and very filling.

The not so good news is it's filling because of what I'd classify as too much filler."Crab cream" is basically surimi or imitation crab that has been shredded and mixed with mayo. Also there was just too much rather bland rice. There was a double-wrapped roll of it under the precious fish.

With a bottle of Mattoni mineral water (35 CZK), the bill came to 506 CZK before tip.

On my next trip, I sat at the sushi bar. Unlike some places in Prague, they do have Japanese chefs behind the counter.I was ignored for 10 minutes by the waitresses. Finally, a chef took pity on me and got one of them to make contact.

I started with a bottle of Asahi (70 CZK).I like this beer, but it was a lot to pay for the privilege of trying something besides the usual Czech offerings.

The tuna temaki (100 CZK) caught my eye, and I ordered that.The nori wrapper is formed into a cone and then filled with rice and a fairly generous portion of fish. It was served in a cute little wooden stand.Considering a single nigiri piece is only slightly cheaper, it seems like a good deal. And again, I was impressed with the quality of their tuna.

For the next round, I got another Japanese restaurant non-sushi favorite, the unadon (350 CZK).It's a large portion of warm, barbecued eel served over rice. The fine and delicate meat is covered with a caramel-like sauce.It was a pure pleasure. I used to be able to buy my own at Thai's Asian Food Shop, but sadly they don't carry it any more.

This meal came to 520 CZK before tip.

On my third and final trip, I decided to get what my friend said he loved so much -- the sushi set (470 CZK).

It began with a bowl of miso shiru soup.I thought it was OK, but there was very little seaweed and tofu. I found it quite mild and would prefer a broth with a little more character.

They have Budvar on draft, so I got a .4 liter It was good and cold.

Then came the set.The raw scallop was a sweet and gelatinous pleasure. The squid tasted a bit fishy to me. The shrimp was fresh and snappy. The salmon was perfectly buttery. The red snapper was just OK -- it was a bland fish on its own. The octopus also had a nice snap and crunch to its flesh. The raw shrimp was a pleasure. I really loved the yellow tail sashimi.

There was one nigiri I did not like and it was a big surprise: the tuna. It smelled just fine, but it had a strange, mealy texture. It sort of dissolved in my mouth, instead of needing to be chewed.

I mentioned my trip to Yami to foodie friend, Barbarella. She also complained about this strange tuna texture. It's hard to explain that this happened more than once, especially since I had two other good experiences.

It also struck me that the chefs seem to be masters of illusion. The rolls were made to look big with large amounts of rice. And the fish on top of the nigiri were made to look bigger because the finger of rice underneath was absolutely tiny so there is a lot of overhang.

I was pretty full, but decided I should try a dessert. I got the banana tempura with honey (90 CZK).They do know how to fry that crunchy batter just right. It was simple, but I liked it.

This final bill was 605 CZK before tip.

Look, I know Yami has many fans. I've heard from more than just my friend about it. And the full seats there make their own statement. I did have a lot of good fish there. I loved the crab and the eel. I'm sure I'll be back from time to time.

The prices aren't bad... for Prague. The quality is generally pretty good... for Prague. I think those qualifiers are required.

My top choice for sushi here is still the very modest and simple Sushi Tam Da because of its value for money quotient.

But if I go to my favorite cheap sushi spots in New York or Atlanta, I'll pay less than all the well-known Prague places, and the stuff will be much better. I'll even be bold and state that I've enjoyed some American supermarket sushi more than a lot of what I find in this town.

It's all well and good if you are loving the sushi somewhere in Prague. For me, it's still a relative question and the reality tastes a little different.

Yami Sushi House
Masná 3
Prague 1 - Old Town
Tel. (+420) 222 312 756

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Friday, April 1, 2011


"Don't just shove food into your mouth. Taste the flavor exploding in your mouth. Appreciate the texture. Honor your food with the time you take." William Shatner
I couldn't resist being among the first to try Sansho, the new Asian fusion restaurant created by Paul Day.

I had to test the talents of the former senior sous chef at the Michelin-starred Nobu in London. He also worked at Nahm, the only Thai restaurant in Europe to receive such a star.

Although I'd never tried it, I had heard good things about Day's work at Shiso, located in the member's only LS Club (which has morphed into the Crystal Club). I also went because I'd gotten a recommendation from "Red" on my Czech Please Facebook page.

Let's just say expectations were pretty high. And as I'll explain later, something unexpected happened that perhaps I should have expected.

Twice, I made my way over to Petrská Street. The brightly lit restaurant stands tall on its own corner.I went once alone on a quiet weeknight, and once with my Italian foodie friend, Miss P. Both times, it was still in the soft open period and the menu had not been finalized.

The L-shaped main dining area is meticulously simple. It feels in the kitchen of someone's stylishly spare country house.The front room is furnished with long, blond wood tables with cushioned bench seating.

I liked the casual, communal feel. Miss P pointed out that sitting for a long meal without back support is not terribly comfortable and she wished for placemats or some covering for the table.I was told the restaurant, which has a no smoking policy, can seat 40 people, but it would be tight. In warm weather, there will be seating for 25 more on the beautiful street out front.

Several friends have already been to Sansho and raved about it. There were just a few nitpicks about the seating: Mr. T wished he could adjust the distance of the bench to the table more easily. Mr. B said he liked the atmosphere, but felt awkward sitting elbow to elbow with an overly amorous couple.

Bad luck. Of course, there's also every chance you might meet some interesting new people at your table.

I had an issue with high noise levels when the restaurant was full on my second visit. It occasionally put a strain on conversation.

I always find it entertaining to watch cooks at work. The kitchen is not fully open, but there's a large window to the kitchen where you can catch glimpses of the owner and several other cooks hard at work.I learned on Cuketka's blog (Czech only) that Sofia Smith of Angel Restaurant fame (which I loved) was working there.

In the front, there's a bar area where oysters were kept on a bed of crushed ice.Eventually there will be photos or art on the walls. A sound system had yet to be installed.

Some light fixtures consisted of industrial-looking Bakelite hubs with red wires and low-wattage bare bulbs. I asked Chef Paul what he would cover those with, thinking it was unfinished. I was wrong. He told me that was exactly how he wanted it.

There is a small room in the back with just five or six simple tables that can be pushed together if necessary and small, separate chairs.To the untrained eye, these might look like old schoolroom chairs. And basically they are.

Day said he imported them from Britain because he liked their unfussy, frugal simplicity. He was later informed that he had actually repatriated old Czechoslovak-made chairs someone remembered sitting on at school many years ago.

Overall, the impression, entirely intentional, is that the investment is in the food, not the furniture.

On the first visit, the chef offered basically a seven course tasting menu of everything he was making that night for 750 CZK. He said that he aims to keep prices for bigger main courses under 400 CZK. I saw the lunch menu and most plates were well under 200 CZK. On the second visit, there was still no menu, so I'll list the prices as they were itemized on the receipt.

As I saw with many other guests, food that is ordered by several people is served family-style, with everyone sharing from a big central plate or bowl.

A first pleasant surprise is that Sansho serves pitchers of iced tap water, rather than pushing the pricey bottle stuff (which they have as well).There was a nice twist, though, with cucumber and mint, giving it a fresh and fragrant flair. There was a 10 CZK water charge per person.

Miss P and I decided to start with white wine and shared a .15 liter glass of Sardinian Vermentino (115 CZK). It was tart with a light sweetness. Mr. B had told me how much he enjoyed it.

"Simple," said Miss P.

The first course was oysters. The bivalves came from France. They were meaty, absolutely fresh, and delicious. There were two different preparations.The small, kitschy glasses held a Thai Nam Jin sauce (144 CZK for 2). Chef Paul called it his version of Bloody Mary oysters, though there was no vodka. To put the flavor in simple terms, it was like spicy tomato juice with the refreshing taste of the sea.

The oysters still in the shells had a simple orange ponzu sauce (144 CZK for 2). To me, the oysters were really the stars here, more than the sauces.

Next came the seared Scottish salmon sashimi (180 CZK).The fish was covered with a citrus soy sauce, fresh ginger, and sesame seeds. It was another refreshing and light plate that continued to wake up the palate.

Then we received two sticks with chicken satay (120 CZK). The tender meat was expertly grilled. The nutty sauce was more salty than sweet. It was topped with crispy fried shallots. It didn't grab me as much the satay sauces I've fallen in love with at Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam. Mr. B told me he thought it was nice but not the best dish among many other very good ones.

Chef Paul came by to explain that he had prepared a dish he called "fritto misto" but with an Asian turn (130 CZK).It included one of my all-time favorites, soft shell crab, a rarity in Prague. The little legs were expertly coated with the lightest of tempura-style batter.

There were a few delicious whitebait under there. There were also small pieces of batter-fried squid. Of the trio, this worked the least best. They were rather insubstantial. The whole thing was topped by cilantro, also known around these parts as coriander. It's probably my favorite herb.

On the side was a Thai chili sauce that didn't look like the usual stuff from a bottle you see everywhere else.This was homemade. It was sweet, spicy, and tangy, and a nice extra quality detail.

There was a dish called duck sliders (120 CZK). The excellently executed shredded duck with great skin sat on a round, fluffy Chinese-style bun. There was also a homemade plum sauce, hoisin, green onion and cucumber.It looked like it would be doughy mouthful. But I was delightfully surprised. The bun was very light and all too easy to consume. The slider went down in three quick bites.

We tried .15 liter glasses of the Grotta Rossa (100 CZK each).I liked it, but Miss P also felt it was just simple.

On my solo visit, I got to try his pork belly in a 3 pepper sauce.Some years back, I tried the pork belly at Maze by Gordon Ramsay while it was open in Prague. Without a doubt, Paul Day's was far better.

By its very nature, this is a very fatty dish. I urge you to ignore this fact. It was a pure pleasure. Each bite melted in my mouth. It spoke to me of China.

I was told some of the secrets to its success. The pork belly was brined for hours before cooking. Also, all the pork and beef Sansho served are sourced from dedicated organic farms.

The flavors reminded me of meals I'd had last fall on Gerard Street in London's Chinatown. I mentioned this to Chef Paul and he told me he'd worked for a time as a butcher there. His experience, and the taste, certainly come through.

On the second visit, I was shown a piece of fresh fish, an umbrina. I was told it was from the haike family and had been swimming in the waters off Italy only the day before.

It was later steamed and cooked with chicken stock, black bean, and white pepper (310 CZK).Chef Paul was very proud of this fish, so he looked crestfallen when I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about it.

Perhaps it is just my personal taste, but I tend to prefer lighter fish like sea bass, sole, or cod. This boneless filet had a much denser texture and somewhat fishier flavor that didn't appeal to me. Miss P also didn't love it.

However, I am enthusiastic about the beef rendang. This Indonesian dish was great.The meat was cooked for 12 hours until it reached a state of fork-tender softness. Crispy toasted coconut was sprinkled on top. It sat under a spicy, coconut milk-based sauce. On the side were homemade roti.

After the many other dishes I had that first night, it almost killed me to finish it. So yes, it is to die for.

There was a side dish of wok-fried Brussels sprouts.Very nice, and again, I was having Gerard Street flashbacks. It was fried up with fish sauce, ginger, and chilies.

My favorite dish of all came on the second visit. It was the boneless barbecued pork chop.The sweet sauced meat had a little char on it that gave it the smoky flavor I so often crave. It was cooked with galangal, lemon grass, and fish sauce and topped with cilantro.

I'll get a double portion of this next time. Miss P also liked this one the best.

When you eat yourself to the point of a Monty Pythonesque explosion, the heavenly desserts are the way you want to go out.

First, I tried the homemade ice cream (120 CZK). On this day, there was chocolate, passion fruit with pink peppercorn, and crunchy bits of pistachio toffee.The chocolate was incredible. I couldn't decide if it was like a dense chocolate mousse or a light flourless chocolate cake. The flavor of bittersweet chocolate was intense. Death by chocolate, indeed. The acidic passion fruit was the perfect palate cleanser.

On the second visit, I had the sticky toffee pudding (135 CZK). It was very much like the great one that Sofia Smith made at Angel. Served warm with vanilla ice cream, this caramelized confection was a super rich finish. I must warn you, it does require a sweet tooth of saber-toothed tiger proportions to consume this dessert.

Now it's time to tell you about my unexpected experience. Although it has already gotten busy by word of mouth, the first night I went, I was alone and there was only one other table occupied. I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Chef Paul struck up a conversation with me. He sat down at my table. We talked at length, and he satisfied my endless curiosity on many topics. I really do love talking about food, as does he, and my guard was down.

At the end of the conversation he said, "And by the way, I read your blog."

Czech Please! Busted! I'd been recognized a few times after an article was published, but it had never happened in the middle. At that point, I just said I'd have to make full disclosure and let the chips fall where they may. This was a restaurant I had to write about, no matter what.

Did I get special treatment and attention? Maybe. Was I too nice or too hard because of it? I hope not. Was a drink and the pork chop dish left off the bill by mistake? I hope so.

All I can say is that I did my best to report my honest impressions. However, if that is not quite enough, I also have the independent views of those friends and acquaintances who have already eaten at Sansho.

One of them is Grant Podelco, the polymorphous Prague blogger. He's the author of the Gusto blog, among other many things. I saw him through the window one night as I passed by having dinner with his wife and friends.

He later told me it was "one of the best dinners of my life, and certainly the best meal I've had in Prague." High praise, indeed, from a former restaurant critic.

Mr. B texted me at the end of his dinner. The message said: "Am at nonfancy fusion place. Outstanding; einmalig (unique) in Prague." Mr. T gave it a big thumbs up. The only dissenting voice was Miss P, who was not nearly so impressed.

It's not necessarily a cheap meal. If you eat and drink as much as I did with Miss P, you could hit 1000 CZK per person.But you could certainly eat and spend less. Either way, I'd still say it's a great value. You could really taste the time and attention to detail that was put into each dish.

I'm putting Sansho on my recommended list for friends and visitors. Mr. B is right -- there's nothing else quite like it in the Czech capital.

That's because Paul Day, like William Shatner's alter ego, Captain Kirk, is a man with a mission.

And that is to boldly go where no chef has gone before.

Petrská 25
Prague 1 - New Town
Tel. (+420) 222 317 425

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