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March 8-14, 2006

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Yeah Yeah Ya: Clockwise from right: renkon hasami age; ahi salad; chirashi; sunomono.

Clap Your Hands, Say Yume-Ya

Unique flavors and a special bond with customers make Sunnyvale discovery a top-notch option for Japanese cuisine

By Stett Holbrook

There's something unique and, dare I say, special about sitting at a sushi bar. If you're a good diner and the sushi chef is a good chef, the two of you are likely to strike up a fast and rather intimate relationship built on trust, curiosity and sensual pleasure.

What makes a good diner? A good diner will ask questions about what's special or particularly fresh. A good diner will tell the chef what he or she likes and ask for suggestions. For his part, a good chef picks up on the fact that you're interested in his food and are willing to try new things. If you liked the richness of the ankimo (monkfish liver), he may suggest you try a pork belly dish or pass you a plate of something you've never had.

As you sit at the bar and watch the chef deftly slice fish, roll rice and twist seaweed, you're putting faith in the chef's skill and the purity of the ingredients you're about to put in your mouth. And for the chef, he receives immediate feedback as you chew and swallow the edible works of art he sets before you. What develops is a steady give and take built around pleasure. The chef wants to please you and you want to be pleased and, in turn, please the chef with your pleasure. Everybody wins.

I felt like a winner during my recent visits to Yume-Ya in Sunnyvale. Yume-Ya shares a mini-mall with a Radio Shack and a Big 5 on the corner of El Camino Real and Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road. It's a rather bland setting, but the food is anything but. Don't come here looking for sake bombs and macadamia nut-encrusted gimmicky sushi rolls, although you will find premium-quality sake and excellent rolls. This is a quiet but warm restaurant where Japanese is the language of choice among customers and staff alike.

More Than a Sushi Bar

Yume-Ya is more than a sushi bar and this adds to its appeal. There are several Japanese food standards like chicken teriyaki and tempura, but what sets this restaurant apart is its selection of izakaya-style dishes, little plates of often intensely flavored food designed to go with beer and sake. There are only a handful of izakaya restaurants in the South Bay (Saizo and Tanto in Sunnyvale, Gochi in Cupertino) and they offer an eye-opening break from the California-roll-ramen-teriyaki routine. At Yume-Ya, many of the best izakaya dishes are on the Japanese menu, so be sure to ask the chef about them. The best stuff I had came from this menu.

Properly seated at the bar in front of the chef, I got down to business. I told the soft-spoken, bespectacled chef I wanted to try both sushi and izakaya dishes. From the English menu, I had the fried oyster and fried octopus ($4.75). These were serviceable, but not particularly noteworthy. The octopus, which bordered on rubbery, had the best flavor and perked up even more from a squeeze of the Meyer lemon provided. The grilled scallop ($4.75) was altogether different. The dish didn't arrive on a dish at all, but on a large scallop shell. The small shellfish were baked to a toasty brown with onions, fresh spinach, butter and cheese. Had I not been in a Japanese restaurant, I would have pegged this as a French Mediterranean dish like coquilles St. Jacques.

In between dishes, the chef handed me small, complimentary snacks, like a kindly uncle sneaking me an extra cookie. Some of them included thinly battered and flash-fried aji (Spanish mackerel) bones, stewed pork belly and daikon radish, ankimo in a ponzu sauce and a wonderfully fresh and potent spicy tuna poke. Each contained only a few bites, and that had me wanting more. I love that.

Still hungry, I asked him what fish he recommended and he steered me toward the kampachi (baby yellowtail). In a few quick movements he sliced off two shimmering slices, placed them each on a mound of rice and tied it all up with a ribbon of seaweed. In four bites they were gone. But I took my time, savoring the meaty, briny freshness of the fish. Another unique dish was the kazunoko ($4), or herring roe. The yellow skein of eggs nestled on a nest of rice was firm but yielded a slight crunch of rich, mildly salty eggs.

For a filling, but still light, late-winter meal, try the oden ($8.75), a fish cake stew. Fish cakes of different sizes, shapes and colors float in a light amber fish and seaweed broth that's warming and nourishing. In addition to the fish cakes, there was a hardboiled egg, a firm and gelatinous potato cake called konyaku and a delicious tofu cake that was crisp outside and rich and custardy inside and filled with vegetables. The excellent food blog describes oden as "old man food." I liked it, so if that makes me an oldster, so be it.

Japanese Rarities

On a second visit I delved into the Japanese menu. One dish the chef recommended was the stuffed lotus root ($4.25), crisp wagon wheel-shaped discs of the vegetables paired with thicker slices stuffed with shrimp. The dish was just this side of salty, but the shrimp flavor married well with the vegetables and it made my sake taste even better. My favorite was the eggplant ($3.25), thick slices fried with a barely there crust and served in a bowl of a light ponzulike sauce. The eggplant melted in my mouth like a handful of cotton candy. The chef's final suggestion was the Japanese spring roll ($3.75), a dish I've never heard of before. Wrapped in rice paper, it looked like an ordinary spring roll, but inside it contained fresh spinach, chunks of crab and a tart-sweet plum paste. The rice vinegar-spiked dipping sauce served with it made it even better.

In addition to the gracious chef (later identified to me only as Mr. Sugawara), Yume-Ya's waitresses are unfailingly attentive, almost doting. I felt very well taken care of here. I hope the relationship I started continues.


Address: 150 El Camino Real (at Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road), Sunnyvale.

Phone: 408.530.8156.

Hours: Open 5:30pm-11pm Mon-Sat.

Price Range: $3-$10.

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