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Talking Taka
Benkay's old chef opens his own joint


1 Danforth St., Portland, (207) 780-0880.
Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Mon. through Fri., and for dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. on Sun. through Thurs., and from 5 to 11 p.m. on Fri. and Sat.
Full bar
All major credit cards accepted.

Life in the big city has much to recommend it, including more restaurants. In Portland, thereís a preponderance of certain species: great breakfast places, Thai and Indian, chowder joints. And now, with Yosaku opened, no fewer than half-a-dozen sushi bars ó why, itís almost an embarrassment of riches.

Yosaku is the newly born babe of Takahiro Sato (better known as Taka to his legion of fans at Benkay) and his American wife, Susan. Taka has spent years learning the highly refined art of cutting fish, in Omaha, New Hampshire, and Maine, but he has a Japanese gentlemanís traditional humility about his calling. More importantly, perhaps, he also has business connections with companies in Maine and Los Angeles which import seafood directly from Japan, ensuring the freshest possible product ó heís his own middleman.

The former site of Giobbiís makes for spacious quarters, the more so thanks to the somewhat Spartan décor: gray-carpeted floors, a few prints on the walls, blue-and-white banners fluttering over the e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s sushi bar, which hugs an entire wall of the front room. The back room seems a little lonely, an ancient tea kettle sighing mournfully at the service bar. Like many places, Yosaku has better ambience when itís busy.

Even if you donít sit at the sushi bar, itís worth a field trip to see whatís looking particularly fresh in the glass cases. Glistening, blood-red slabs of toro tuna; pearly sides of yellowtail; wooden tubs of yellow-orange sea urchin; gleaming white squares of escolar ó thanks to great connections, Yosakuís got it all.

Sato-san has put together an unusually lengthy and informative Sushi Guide, the whole center-page section of the menu, in fact. If youíre so inclined, you can read about the difference between negiri (the lozenge-shaped individual pieces) and maki (rolls), sample such esoterica as wild yam rolls and horse mackerel sashimi, or play it safe with a platter or a selection from the " Beginner Sushi " section, Level One or Level Two (shrimp, smoked salmon, California roll, and so on). Sato is nothing if not serious about his role as an educator.

Most of what Iíve tried from the sushi bar has been exemplary, if not always my favorite version of same. I think the glorious hamachi (yellowtail) is probably the best in town ó sweet and silken with interstitial fat ó but the saba (mackerel) was oversalted for my taste. Rolls are on the small side, but expertly assembled, and there are all kinds of interesting ones, from Okísan (salmon, cucumber, shiso leaf, and ume plum) to Gaijin (white fish and tobiko caviar). And itís worth the price of admission just to be able to try something like shiro maguro (the vaunted escolar, aka " white tuna " ) best enjoyed as a pristine order of sashimi, with none of that rice, seaweed, or wasabi to get in the way of the lovely, delicate flavor and smooth texture.

But thereís more to Yosakuís menu than sushi and sashimi, and some of the appetizers and " kitchen foods " are so unusual for the neighborhood that you want to order them just to be encouraging. Take the yama-kake, a little soup bowl filled with viscous, porridge-like sticky potato (it stretches off the spoon as you eat it), garnished with bright-red maguro tuna, shaved bonito, and a raw quail egg ó a wacky, and uniquely Japanese, counterplay of bland tastes and soft-and-softer textures, and probably not for everyone. I hope they keep it on the menu.

Cunning little shumai (steamed shrimp dumplings) are tender and delicate, and the miso soup and seaweed salad seem better than usual, the first one dense and smoky-tasting, and the latter brightly flavored with a bit of hot pepper. Hokkai Yaki (broiled spicy hamachi) was the appetizer hit of the evening, though: squares of nori seaweed, topped with sushi rice and chunks of yellowtail, and that mayo-like sauce so necessary to spicy tuna rolls, then broiled until the little packages become crispy around the edges.

Always-popular tempura is as it should be: crisp, light and hot. And there are lots of lovely noodle and rice dishes, including oyako domburi (chicken and egg on rice), fat white udon noodles simmered in kombu (kelp) broth with various toppings, and delicate soba (buckwheat noodles), served both cold and hot in different guises. Many of these would be great for vegetarians.

What to have for dessert after a Japanese meal? Generally Iíd say fresh fruit, but at Yosaku you could also have the Tempura Cheesecake, an oddly appealing jumble of blocks of cheesecake, oh yes, deep-fried in tempura batter. Our kindly and proactive waitress, who took credit for having thought up the idea, warned us that not everyone likes it, and given that sheíd already suggested the broiled yellowtail, we were inclined to trust her.

Come summer, expect a Japanese garden in the outdoor patio, along with more appetizers, a 1 a.m. weekend closing, and four different Japanese beers on tap.

Joan Lang can be reached at joanmlang@aol.com

Issue Date: March 6 - 13, 2003
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