Restaurant Review

A first taste of an ancient tradition is simply superb

CorrespondentSeptember 27, 2012 

  • More information Yamazushi 4711 Hope Valley Road, in Woodcroft Shopping Center, Durham 919-493-7748 Cuisine: Japanese Rating: ***** Prices: $$$-$$$$ Atmosphere: serene Noise level: low Service: impeccable Recommended: everything, especially kaiseki Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations: strongly recommended; required for eight-course kaiseki Other: beer and wine; excellent sake selection; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection (excellent with advance notice); parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Three bite-size pieces of kabocha squash, the color of their flesh evocative of autumn leaves, rest on an emerald bed of snow peas. Indeed, leaf veins are deftly carved into the delicate green skins of the kabocha. A garnet sliver of pickled ginger adds vivid punctuation to the edible haiku.

For all its poetry, the dish is just a prelude, a complimentary morsel sent out by Yamazushi owner/chef George Yamasawa as a welcoming gesture. I’ve ordered the kaiseki, a traditional Japanese meal roughly analogous to a Western tasting menu – but with a lot more history.

Specializing in kaiseki

Tracing its roots to the austere vegetarian meals of Zen Buddhist monks, kaiseki has evolved over the centuries into an elaborate ritual that may consist of as many as 14 courses and last for several hours.

By comparison, the five-course kaiseki I’ve ordered is modest. Even so, over the course of the next two hours (the deliberate pacing of kaiseki is an essential part of the experience), dish after dish will become etched indelibly into my memory of a supremely satisfying experience:

1. Sakizuke (starter): Burdock, simmered to tenderness in dashi, a broth whose subtle briny flavor permeates the earthy root. Nestled on a velvety puree of young edamame, translucent ovals of cucumber and ribbons of wakame seaweed, the composition is a study in delicacy.

2. Mukouzuke (“fresh dish”): assorted sashimi. Tonight, the chef offers sea bream, amberjack, tuna belly and sea urchin – each impeccable, served with grated fresh wasabi. A house blend of soy sauce (tempered with mirin, bonito and kombu stock so as not to overpower the pure flavors of the fish) arrives in a rustic earthenware cruet that – like most of the tableware here – was made by the chef.

3. Age-mono (“fried dish”): North Carolina shrimp in a light, delightfully crunchy rice-cracker crust, served with a lemon wedge, a tiny mound of green tea salt, and tempura sauce for dipping.

4. Yaki-mono (“grilled dish”): Miso-marinated black cod, a sweet-savory yin and yang of supple white flesh and ebony-lacquered skin, resting on a scaffold of steamed asparagus spears.

5. Gohan-mono (“rice dish”): Osaka-style boxed sushi. Unlike Tokyo’s familiar Edo-style sushi, which is formed in the hand, Osaka-style sushi is pressed in a wooden mold, and all the fish are either cooked or cured. Tonight, that translates to house-cured salmon, vinegared mackerel and broiled seawater eel.

The featured fish will depend on the market, naturally, and the entire kaiseki offering evolves with the seasons. Persimmons will make an appearance in the coming weeks, according to Yamasawa’s wife and partner, Mayumi. Spring should see fresh bamboo shoots sprout up across the menu.

The five-course kaiseki will set you back $50, and an eight-course version (available by reservation with three days’ advance notice) runs $85. Vegan and macrobiotic versions are also available.

A la carte menu also shines

I can’t recommend the kaiseki experience highly enough, but you shouldn’t let price stop you from dining here.

Yamazushi’s à la carte menu offers a less expensive alternative. Along with appetizer and entree renditions of some of the dishes from the kaiseki, you’ll find the likes of an eggplant miso starter for $9 and a hearty hot pot of Kurobuta pork, fresh vegetables and sweet potato noodles in a kombu seaweed broth for $18.

But you won’t find any sushi rolls. Or a sushi bar, for that matter, which has been closed indefinitely as part of a makeover. A couple of years ago, in fact, the Yamasawas nearly closed the whole place down (which they had opened in 1986, making it the oldest traditional Japanese restaurant in the Triangle) in the face of competition from BOGO sushi joints.

Instead, they decided to give the area its first taste of kaiseki. They put fresh flowers and white linens on the tables, and set them against a serene backdrop of bamboo screens and soft music. They reduced the dining area to a mere six tables, enabling them to devote the full attention to each that is essential to the kaiseki experience.

Service completes success

Mayumi Yamasawa will tell you that the Japanese spirit of hospitality – of anticipating a guest’s needs so well that they don’t have to be spoken – is as integral to the kaiseki experience as the food. She and her small staff live up to that demanding standard, whether it’s offering to bring another pot of tea just as you’re pouring the last cup or quietly alerting you that the bathroom – which was occupied on your first attempt – has become free.

Or helping you to navigate Yamazushi’s superb sake selection. Mayumi Yamasawa is without doubt one of the area’s foremost experts on the subject, and is just as adept at discussing the degree of polish in the rice that went into the making of a Junmai Ginjo “Emperor’s Well” as making you feel comfortable with your selection of a more commonplace hot sake.

Either way, you’ll be presented with a tray of sake cups (more of George Yamasawa’s handiwork) to choose from. Take the one that catches your whim, and I’ll propose the toast: Here’s to Yamazushi, in gratitude for a truly memorable experience. or

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