Coming Up Short

While the sushi's a hit, Yama still misses a beat

Yama Asian Fusion
720 Governor Morrison St.
$$, L (except Sun), D
(7 days a week), P



So-called fusion cuisine takes many forms. It first crept into the American vernacular in the early 1980s with the popularity of restaurants like Spago, Wolfgang Puck's homage to Asian, French, Italian, and American cooking. Now it seems that fusion cooking appears everywhere, either in full concept form or in sections of menus across the American culinary landscape. In capable hands, it can inspire and take food to new heights with clever ingredient combinations and techniques. In others it fails miserably, with weak imagination and even shoddier technique.

 Jon Luther's Favorite Dishes

Soft Shell Crab Tempura
When in season, it's crunchy, crabby, and ethereal inside a light tempura batter. $8.95.

Very fresh, expertly prepared, and artfully arranged on a number of different platters, depending on the size of the order. $4 to $6.50 for two or three pieces.

Beef with Mushrooms
A South American-style sauce is a departure from the predominantly Asian menu, but it works well. $23.95.

Hot Spring Fish
A sea bass is cut into a thick steak, then delicately steamed to the perfect texture and topped with a sweet, brothy ginger scallion drizzle. $31.95.

Yama Asian Fusion falls somewhere in between. Just how much it leans either way has everything to do with which part of the menu you decide to explore and your knowledge or willingness to experiment.

Yama, a 3,000-square-foot, eighty-seater in the Morrison shopping center at Sharon and Colony roads, is the third restaurant in the growing stable of Asian concepts owned by Paul Wu. The other two, both named Osaka, are in Charleston and Lake Norman. The Yama concept is primarily influenced by Japanese cooking styles, and the many chefs here are adept at turning out sushi, hibachi (also known as teppanyaki), and tempura in several different incarnations. The sushi menu itself is large and dominated by a "special roll" section, which features a wide array of cooked sushi rolls. These look tempting, but are really geared toward the timid sushi novice. The majority are self-described fusion applications like the Crispy Bagel Roll ($7.95) with cream cheese and smoked salmon (Philly fusion), the special Filet Roll ($13.95) with filet mignon strips topping a roll with avocado and cucumber inside (steakhouse fusion). The theme: tempura fried ingredients that combine uneventfully with cucumber and avocado. Fusion? I guess, but it's not very imaginative.

If you are a sushi purist, dive right in to the nigiri and sashimi ($4 to $6.50 for two or three pieces) offerings. The fish is flown in daily from a sushi market in New York and carved with capable hands. One standout is tuna (maguro) nigiri, rich and robust with soy and perfectly steamed rice. A piece of fresh salmon is bright orange and striped with layers of fat that melt brilliantly into a hellfire wasabi/soy concoction. Other delights are fluke (hirami) and yellowtail (hamachi), which are best enjoyed unadorned, save for a quick dip in soy, which reveals both the clean ocean brininess and the pleasing texture of the fish.

A quick glance at the sushi case located at the ten-seat bar reveals a wide range of impeccable fish, shellfish, and cephalopods that, after a flurry of sharp knives, arrive artfully arranged on flat plates, large round trays, or huge wooden boats, depending on the size of your order. And there are attractive "Sushi/Sashimi Entrées" that allow the sushi chefs to select the day's freshest offerings. Try the "Love Boat" for two. At $46.95, it is a ton of sushi, and probably more appropriate for dinner, but it provides a good cross section of sushi and maki rolls.

The hibachi selections—available at lunch ($8.95-$13.95) and dinner ($12.95-$24.95)—are plentiful with various combinations of steak, chicken, shrimp, and scallops and served with a salad, soup, grilled vegetables, and fried rice. And while there is nothing wrong with these selections—in fact the steak and shrimp combo is quite good (however the difference in price between lunch and dinner is difficult to digest)—there is nothing remarkable either. And because Yama eschews the gimmicky tableside cooking made famous at places like Benihana, you don't get much theater. (Say what you want, but with the right crowd and enough sake, sometimes those places are just plain fun.)

Along with the sushi, the real reason to come to Yama is the entrée section of the menu. For it is here that Wu has provided some focus in an otherwise cluttered menu. Fish Chips ($17.95) are given a Hawaiian treatment with tilapia fried in a very light tempura batter, served with a bright citrus vinaigrette and pineapple salsa. Yama Chicken takes on a Szechuan feel with chunks of chicken lightly fried with a sweet and spicy orange glaze. And the Beef with Mushrooms is fantastic. The tender filet is simply grilled with a thin anticucho veal reduction from South America that brings out the flavor of the beef nicely without overpowering it.

But the standout is the Hot Spring Fish. A sea bass is cut into a thick steak, then delicately steamed to the perfect texture and topped with a sweet, brothy ginger/scallion drizzle. The fish sits atop thick slices of flash-fried ginger, and when the fish is flaked and chopsticked into a side sauce of sweet soy, it reanimates on the palate with a ginger swirl then finishes with a Zen-like calm. This is a dish that could make Yama famous.

Yet I'm not sure fame is the goal here. If it were, they wouldn't have made a few obvious design missteps. Four plasma screens—mounted throughout the restaurant—playing ESPN? One at the small bar maybe, but four? Also, for the record, smooth jazz and sushi do not mix. But I could suffer through Chris Berman and Kenny G, I suppose, if someone would simply dim the lights. The place is like an operating room. Great for spleen removal, not so nice for an intimate dinner.

Wu has a very capable and friendly staff at Yama preparing and serving food with pride. That is sometimes the hardest part of operating a restaurant. With a little more imagination and tightening of the menu, as well as a few simple experiential tweaks, little Yama could be a star.

Categories: Food + Drink, Restaurant Reviews, Review