One of this year’s most interesting new restaurants so far is Yamato, the latest project by celebrity chef Zdeněk Pohlreich that opened its doors in early February. Pohlreich, who is the executive chef at Café Imperial and Divinis, is also known for his Gordon Ramsey-style show Ano, šéfe!, in which he travels the country giving constructive criticism – peppered with much fewer swear words than his British contemporary – to kitchens and restaurant staff.
Given the high-profile quality of his other two ventures, it’s not so surprising that Yamato is excellent, but it is still refreshing to see how the food – in this case, particularly raw fish – is the real star here and not simply the link to Pohlreich’s celebrity persona. Indeed, Pohlreich’s appointed sushi chef, Marek Hora, who spent 19 years learning the art in Japan, is the real personality behind Yamato, putting personal flourishes into many items that result in a confident, fusion-esque cuisine with a focus on much more than just sushi.
Everything about Yamato speaks to precision, professionalism, and stellar performance. While its up-market prices (most items run about 150 to 450 CZK) for such a specialized cuisine could have run a risk in such a residential area in lesser hands, on two recent evening visits the restaurant was respectably full. Despite being a modest size, the light, airy décor – light wood, white walls, cream accents, clean lines and buttery lighting – gave the atmosphere enough of an intimate feel without feeling cramped or uncomfortable.
The menu covers an appetizing selection of sushi (sashimi, nigiri, and various maki) as well as a la carte plates. There are also two chef’s tasting menus, for either 990 CZK or 1,390 CZK per person, which feature six or eight courses comprising a sampling of offerings such as grilled fish and a course of traditional boiled meat. These can only be ordered for at least two persons, though, so you must ensure one of your dining companions feeling adventurous, as well. There is also an impressive selection of Japanese whiskies and various sakes (which go for about 80 CZK a shot), as well as a good range of bottled Japanese beers, of which we tried the refreshing, super-dry Asahi (85 CZK) and the strong, malty Musashino (130 CZK). Wines start at 450 CZK a bottle; on one visit, we opted for the crisp Pinot Grigio Mont Mes 2012 (590 CZK).
Choosing a selection of sushi items, which are prepared at the dining-side counter by Hora (who sported a self-styled hachimaki endurance headband), we were given the option of having items arrive staggered or all at once. The variety arrived on wooden slabs laid out with banana leaves, with the sushi arranged prettily among shreds of white radish and freshly home-pickled ginger. While everything was top-notch and extremely fresh tasting – making us almost forget the miles between here and the sea – the standout was the beeru maguro zuke, or beer-marinated tuna nigiri (150 CZK), a concoction that apparently won Hora accolades in Japan. It seems an appropriately Czech item, as well, and worked on every level: two silky slabs of tuna draped over sticky rice after being marinated in dark beer and soy sauce, topped with a few shards of spring onion. It was an incredibly umami-rich combination that left a long impression (and longing for more).
Another standout, this one for its confident simplicity, was the scallop, or hotate, sashimi (190 CZK). Served as four soft slices, the scallops completely melted on the tongue, leaving one to wonder why on earth anyone would dare to cook such tender morsels. The scallops barely needed more than a hint of soy sauce and wasabi, so lovely was their taste.
Scallops also made another star turn in one of the a la carte items, hotate no karashi su miso yaki, or scallops in sweet-and-sour miso (210 CZK). The sauce itself was incredible – an addictively rich and sweet mix of mustard powder and rice vinegar – and, because it was served warm with the four plump raw scallops dropped in at the last second, the heat perfectly sealed in the delicate flavor. We even dipped several other items, including some maki rolls, into the sauce once the scallops were gone, and it could have been a lovely complement to any seafood.
Another memorable nigiri item was the ika, or squid (90 CZK). Comprising one piece served over sticky rice, the thick, meaty chunk of squid (tentacle-free) was rich and earthy. It should also be noted that the rice was perfect in all the rolls and nigiri – stable, sticky, and lightly aromatic.
Salmon sashimi (140 CZK) was also incredibly buttery and silky, but paled slightly in comparison to several other items. The six-piece hoso maki rolls we sampled were a bit hit-or-miss: While the traditional tuna rolls (190 CZK) were high-quality, the more experimental hoso maki with yellowfish and spring onion was far too overwhelmed by the finely chopped onion, rendering the delicate fish overpowered and leaving a strong, oniony aftertaste.
The more elaborate uramaki, also served in six pieces, were delicious but some of the most expensive items on the menu. The California maki with crab and scallops (450 CZK) were lovely, dusted with a sesame crust and a healthy structural integrity, holding together the avocado and cavier along with the crab and scallops. Likewise, the spider maki (260 CZK), which rolled together deep-fried soft-shell crab (two legs sticking out satisfyingly from each end piece) with wasabi mayonnaise, although the latter was undetectable.
On a second visit, we started with the Suzuki new style (230 CZK), an incredible item from the sashimi menu. We initially asked for the salmon version, but the waiter suggested we try the superior sea bass, which proved a wonderful umami-centered concoction: served in hot oil with fresh chopped garlic, cress, ginger and freshly grated wasabi, and sprinkled with sesame seeds, the razor-thin slices of sea bass had been placed in the hot oil for just a second, searing them beautifully.
Pick-and-mixing several items from the a la carte menu proved an ideal move, as the small portions were perfect for dipping into and trying. Starting with the pickled vegetables, or tsukemono (60 CZK), we were served a tiny plate of sliced daikon pickled in rice wine vinegar, several cubes of pickled beat, and a mustardy-pickled piece of cucumber. Another vegetable dish, the horenso no goma ae, or spinach stewed in a sesame dressing (80 CZK), was amazing for its simplicity. The fresh spinach was stewed in miso and sesame oil with lots of sesame seeds, and it had a rich nuttiness to it that could have merited the side dish main status if the portion were larger.
The mixed plate of tempura did not disappoint, either. For 240 CZK, the basket came with two large shrimp, shiitake mushroom, carrot, green pepper, eggplant, and a slice of sea bass covered in Japanese basil, which was a beautiful surprise. The tempura batter was faultless – crisp and soft with just the right amount of greasiness. It was served with a dashi sauce for dipping, a light broth with a smattering of white radish in it.
Lastly, the fried tofu, or agedashi, was a substantial portion at 70 CZK. Six sizeable blocks of tender tofu, lightly fried and soft, came in another type of dashi sauce, this one with lots of spring onion shavings in it.
There are not too many places in Prague that can boast quality sushi, but the newcomer Yamato is certainly one of them. And the variety of Japanese dishes on offer makes it more than just a sushi joint – it’s worth going there even for just the vegetarian items alone.
Have you visited any of Pohlreich’s other restaurants?
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