LaBan review: Yanako, in Manayunk
'I don't like it when you're right," says Nongyao "Moon" Krapugthong. "I stayed open as long as I did because I wanted to prove you wrong."
I shouldn't have been so startled by Krapugthong's teasing jibe - not to mention her sharp recollection of an old review, and a restaurant concept that didn't survive. Chefs rarely forget. But the irony of her twisted logic is that I quite liked Mango Moon, her intriguing small-plate take on authentic Thai flavors that was an adventurous companion to the more familiar menu of her Chabaa Thai, still thriving nearby. My observation was quite simply that Mango Moon was perhaps a bit too adventurous for Manayunk's traditionally conservative Main Street crowd: "But you were right," she conceded with a friendly growl.
The ever-fascinating Moon, a tireless Bangkok sparkplug who's been one of the most positive figures in redirecting Manayunk's dining scene back toward greater ambitions (not to mention one of Philly's best advocates for women chefs), is probably going to be annoyed with me again. That's because her latest creation, the Japanese-themed Yanako, is playing it a shade too safe.
Even an occasional sushi-bar visitor has seen 95 percent of Yanako's menu before, from the complicated maki rolls to the udon noodles, basic raw fish platters, and teriyaki bento boxes. This is not to say that chef Agus Lukito doesn't execute the classic canon well. He does indeed, with sharp technique and top-quality ingredients, from the occasional special of o-toro tuna belly so richly marbled it actually melts on the tongue, to feathery orange plumes of creamy live uni scooped before our eyes from the belly of its spiny shell.
But there were also flashes of a modern whimsy in our meals - like those special gossamer slices of fluke wrapped around matchstick radish shreds over yuzu-miso vinaigrette ringed by tiny jewels of jelled scallion juice - that let you know Lukito has more creative impulses in the tank than he is showing.
I wish he would show more. Sushi culture has become so much more embedded in the American mainstream than authentic Thai flavors have - there's more room to push the envelope here than Mango Moon ever had. And establishing more of that identity could be the difference between this promising venture's becoming a regional draw or being simply a go-to spot for the neighborhood.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Yanako is a worthy addition to Manayunk. The former clothing boutique, designed by a group of recent Philadelphia University architecture grads called Re: Vision, has been transformed into a tranquil bilevel haven clad in red cedarwood, with cafe windows opened onto an elegant tatami table in front, and the sushi bar nestled behind lanterns and greenery in a courtyardlike back alcove at the bottom of an atrium staircase leading to the mezzanine.
As usual, that sushi bar is the best place to sit, where the day's specials are listed on chalkboards and the rapport between chef and diner is direct, and charming Lukito can gauge a diner's sushi speed.
It is understandable, especially after Mango Moon, that Yanako's menu would aim largely for the comfort zone of Krapugthong's presumed audience.
And the Indonesian-born Lukito, who trained at Teikoku in Newtown Square under Haruo Ige (Krapugthong's initial consultant-mentor in creating Yanako), then worked at Ardmore's Mikado and Izumi in South Philly for two years, is more than capable of carrying it off.
The cooked food menu is standard but spot-on, the tempura-fried veggies light and crisp, the handmade gyoza dumplings tender. The slow-cooked teriyaki sauce, steeped from onions caramelized in beef fat, chicken bones, and sake, adds a rich gloss without being too sweet. The teriyaki chicken was a ho-hum yawn. But the teriyaki-drizzled negimaki of paper-thin steak rolled around spicy-crunchy scallions is one of the must-order apps. And the surprisingly tender teriyaki Angus strip steak was memorable, especially at the center of a $15 bento box lunch that was also a fantastic deal, ringed by crunchy kombu salad, crispy tempura shreds of onions and carrots, an irresistible onigiri rice ball flecked with cooked salmon, and a kabocha squash yokan custard that was my favorite of Yanako's few desserts.
Speaking of lunch bargains, Yanako's nabeyaki udon should not be forgotten amid the current ramen craze. A deep steel bowl, once the wooden lid is removed, offers a mini-cauldron of rope-thick noodles in dashi broth deepened with dried shiitakes, morsels of chicken, and tempura-fried shrimp whose crusts lend both richness and a shrimpy hint of deep-fried smoke as they soften in the broth. Too bad the egg was overcooked. The buckwheat soba noodles I liked far less because the broth was too sweet.
Lukito's raw fish counter, though, is the principal reason to visit. The sushi appetizers, in particular, are fun. Lemony escolar gets rolled in powdered nori, then splayed over an orange sunrise of miso vinaigrette spiked with kimchi spice. Gorgeous squares of bluefin tuna "zuke" glisten in a soy and mirin glaze. The singed edges of torched albacore add subtle smoke to the gingery citrus tang of soy ponzu. Beautifully briny Wellfleet oysters get a jolt from jellied cubes of jalapeño set with agar agar.
Ironically, the signature maki - those complicated multi-ingredient show-off rolls that are typically the biggest gringo draw - are Yanako's weakest link. They're not rolled particularly well, not especially original, and the ingredients blur into a colorful collage rather than remain distinct (like a fried oyster special that was a waste of good mollusks). And please: Remind me to never order a sushi roll (like the smoked salmon-eel Yanako) with cream cheese inside again. Philly pride be damned, cream cheese belongs on a bagel.
The classic yellowtail-scallion roll and tender Seven Seas (tuna-yellowtail centers with spicy crunch on top) were my maki faves.
But Lukito's sushi rises where it counts most: in the sheer quality of his fish and toothy rice, and the skill of presentation. This is one of the more subtle facets that distinguish one seemingly cookie-cutter sushi bar from another. The handsome chirashi box of seasoned rice topped with assorted sashimi is a hearty way to explore his offerings of standard fish.
But I knew right away when presented at dinner with his more ambitious sashimi platter, a bouquet of fish curling across the board, that we were in very good hands. The madai snapper, its white flesh edged with deep red, was alabaster smooth as it snapped between my teeth. The fat-striped salmon resonated with richness. Bluefin tuna tasted like deep purple fruit. The lightly torched skin of mackerel amped its already pleasant, fishy twinge. But a novel morsel of shellfish really caught my eye. Cut into the shape of a sea scallop, but not a scallop, this deeply scored plug of yellow meat turned out to be the tender, briny connector "foot" of a yellow clam.
And for our grand finale? A toasty warm slice of tan anago sea eel - less common and more deeply flavorful than its slimy-sweet freshwater cousin. Posed over a ball of toothy rice and dusted with brilliant little flourishes of smoked sea salt and lime zest, its downy flesh practically dissolved.
If local sushi lovers taste more fish like that, Yanako's future is bright and crystal clear.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews The Industry in Pennsport. Contact him at 215-854-2682 email@example.com, or on Twitter @CraigLaBan.