Yatai Iza­kaya 9½/10

Sunday Herald Life - - REVIEW - Joanna Blyth­man

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.

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