Yatai Izakaya 9½/10
I’LL admit that I was slightly apprehensive about visiting Japan. Based on my experiences in the UK, Japanese food had never been my favourite. And I wanted to have a full-on, no compromise experience: staying in ryokans (inns with traditional features where you sleep on mattresses on the floor), eating Japanese food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, using the underground, trains, figuring out trips from scratch, as opposed to taking guided tours. Our trip turned out to be a pleasure from start to finish. Japan, although stimulatingly unfamiliar, is the least stressful, most serene, most bewitching country I have visited. If you haven’t been and ever get a chance to go, take it.
Somehow I had thought that eating in Japan would be complicated. Actually, it’s one of the easiest places to eat because it has loads of restaurants of different types and lots of affordable ones, often with visual menus, so you only have to point and smile.
Walking into Yatai Izakaya in Aberdeen takes me back to being in Japan. Elongated red lanterns shine out from its modern steel and glass facade, yet with a characteristically Japanese discretion. Yatai is only open in the evening, which adds to its urban mystique. Downstairs, we’re eating close to the kitchen which, as the time ticks by, fills the air with a cloud of singeing shoyu, illuminating our table with the occasional leaping flame followed by the wafting volatile aroma of evaporating rice wine.
The roomier first floor exhibits that admirable underlying design sense of the Japanese: simple, compact, mind-liberatingly empty, punctuated by a few carefully chosen, quite beautiful objects – heavy cast iron teapots, celadon ceramic cups, bowls with a glaze that recalls sea-smoothed beach pebbles, flat rectangular plates with ridged surfaces reminiscent of tree bark. In decor terms alone at Yatai Izakaya, there’s much to “spark the heart with joy”, as de-cluttering guru, Marie Kondo, puts it.
We experience the same refinement, the same focused good taste, on the plate. This being Aberdeen with the fishing ports of Stonehaven, Peterhead, Fraserburgh so close, I’m expecting marvellous fish, and we get it. Of our various marine dishes, it’s the thin, pink-tinged slices of raw, pearly halibut in their sheen of avocado oil, possibly sake, and lime zest, that instantly sparks my heart with joy: so clean, so fresh, so healthy, so satisfying. Their accompanying salad of courgette, paper-thin fennel, slippy seaweed, set on a Malbec vine leaf, amply rewards eating it. Yatai Izakaya uses vegetables, flowers and leaves from its own polytunnel and allotment. “These ingredients are only at their peak for a short time each year or are difficult to source, so please enjoy them while they last,” the menu reads. Seeing is believing; this isn’t glib patter.
By the way, all the fish we eat is above reproach. The ample nuggets of mackerel in our makizushi are quayside-fresh as this species needs to be. The rice that binds them is immaculately sticky, suitably dressed with rice wine and vinegar. Six of these plump rolls cost us £5 – a steal. So much soft-shell crab is more batter than edible meat and shell, but here there’s a chunky, rewardingly filling transition between juicy white flesh and even more flavourful brown meat. A mild-mannered avocado dip and another joyous salad makes this a dish that’s perfect in its own right.
I’m so inspired by Yatai Izakaya’s home-made pickles, a generous, colourful platter of sharp-sweet parsnip (white), carrot (cyclamen), beetroot (golden and pink). Their cooling crunchiness stokes the appetite. They go so well with the amber ridges of the hand-made, porkfilled, steam fried dumplings, and the black peppery, teriyaki pork ribs, which, smoky from the grill, fall off the bone. The pickles cleanse the palate and balance the fried elements.
Light and refreshing sums up the home-made ice cream with its sophisticated underlying bitterness of Matcha green tea, and the raspberry and Ume plum sorbet. An acidic, surprisingly herbaceous fresh rhubarb presence foils the richness of the chocolate truffles.
If you can’t make it to Japan, then Yatai Izakaya is a very close second best.