Maybe there’s already a serious research study out there somewhere, but one question that’s interesting to ponder is what relationship, if any, there is between the size of a restaurant and the size of its menu. A food cart that sells only two or three items makes sense. So does a banquet hall with an expansive menu. On the other hand, a large restaurant that serves a small menu suggests mass production rather than craft. What about the opposite: a small restaurant with an unexpectedly large menu? In the case of Yama Sushi House, the combination actually works.
Yama is among the occupants of the ground floor retail space at the Landmark Towers, a residential high-rise in Uptown Phoenix just a block south of the Central / Camelback light rail station. Landmark is now finishing a renovation accompanied by an almost complete turnover of tenants. Yama is a new arrival in the space that used to house Maizie’s, a neighborhood favorite that closed after a good run of almost eight years. Yama kept the warm feel of the prior tenant but completely changed the menu from American comfort food to modern Japanese cuisine.
The restaurant is modest in size with only 12 to 15 tables, depending on how exactly they are configured, in the comfortable, understated dining room. Although Yama is full service with a host station and attentive servers, this is a small neighborhood restaurant rather than a big build-out. An open kitchen lies behind the tight L-shaped sushi bar and another less visible kitchen produces the cooked items on the menu. There are no bike racks on site currently, but some are promised in the breezeway just south of Yama once renovations to the Landmark building are complete.
With the cozy, compact environment of the dining room, it would not be surprising if Yama offered a one-page menu with a limited, but well thought-out, array of sushi and sashimi. Instead, the restaurant offers extensive listings of both raw and cooked Japanese food, as well as additional menus for happy hour bargains and monthly specials. In an unusual twist, sushi and sashimi are ordered via a server and the often-seen combination of paper slip and golf pencil usually associated with nigiri and rolls is instead reserved for marking off happy hour specials.
The first section of the menu has many of the appetizers usually associated with Japanese restaurants. Seaweed salad and edamame are reliable classics. Pan-fried gyoza come with a filling of seasoned ground pork and minced scallions in filling. Arrive before six, and some of these items are discounted. In addition, the happy hour menu offers some bar snacks not found elsewhere on the menu. Waffle cut sweet potato fries work as a shareable starter, although a little aioli or wasabi mayo might be a more interesting accompaniment than the ketchup provided.
Since Yama’s full name identifies it as a “sushi house,” the section devoted to that specialty is a logical next place to go in exploring the menu. The restaurant offers a full array of seafood specialties prepared with minimal alteration in both nigiri and sashimi formats. Expect not only the familiar such as yellowtail, salmon, and tuna, but also less commonly appreciated choices like surf clam and sea urchin. The rice holds its own in the nigiri structure, and the fish is consistently well prepared. Several of these choices are substantially discounted on the happy hour menu.
More complex preparations and ingredient combinations are found among the rolls. Some, like the yellowtail scallion roll or the salmon asparagus roll, are simple and self-explanatory, relying primarily on the taste of a few key ingredients. Others display more complexity and wordplay. The Playgirl Roll is filled with tempura shrimp, avocado, salmon, and topped with spicy mayonnaise. The Pink Lady comprises tuna, salmon, and avocado wrapped in pink soy paper, a colorful alternative to seaweed. The presentation as a row of hearts adds to the cleverness of this roll.
The cooked side of the menu is extensive, presenting at least one specimen of most major aspects of Japanese cuisine from noodle soups to breaded meats, and sometimes both together. A bowl of udon with tempura shrimp benefits from a robust broth, shiitake mushrooms, and three big prawns. The chicken katsu plate of fried poultry over rice with minimal adornment is a simple entree that works especially well for children or fussy diners. The chicken yakisoba has the mild, slightly sweet sauce characteristic of this dish, along with an assortment of stir-fried vegetables.
While the entire menu is available all day, Yama does have a specific section devoted to lunch entrees, including combinations of popular sushi and sashimi items, increasingly ubiquitous poke bowls, and bento boxes that pair a selected meat with California rolls, rice, and salad. The last of those choices comes with teriyaki chicken or beef, breaded pork, or the choice of a Yama Bento with sashimi as the main item. Desserts with a slight Japanese influence include green tea panna cotta, tempura cheesecake, and a recent special of chocolate lava cake with plum ice cream.
If there’s one area in which Yama’s menu seems as compact as its space, it’s the drink menu. There are four tap handles, a small selection of wine, and some sake, but no cocktails. Nevertheless, the beverage quality is high, and the prices are right, especially at happy hour. With these choices, it’s easy to put together a filling meal, or several meals, at Yama. Urban life is often about juxtapositions like this one: a high-rise tower over a little restaurant with an extensive menu. In this case, the combination of these factors may be unexpected, but the result is successful.
4750 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012
Central / Camelback Station