Yaku Japonské BBQ
It is a rare enough thing to have a near-flawless dining experience, and even rarer still for that dining experience to involve a cuisine outside of its native country – especially if that restaurant happens to be in Prague. But with Yaku, the first restaurant in Prague dedicated to Japanese barbecue – yakiniku – it’s also saying something that it is said to rival a majority of yakiniku restaurants in Japan itself. Even for the uninitiated, the sleek, professional outfit in New Town, tucked away behind Náměstí Republiky, is a pleasure to delve into, with a knowledgeable staff and some of the best-quality meats in town.
Yakiniku is a social undertaking, and Yaku is best experienced with a group of friends and an adventurous palate (beef tongue and pork intestine, anyone?). The best seats for pairs are at the long bar, which takes up much of the front room, surrounded by black walls and streamlined stainless steel. The yakiniku grills are placed in front of each party, and, in the large back room, at intervals on the long table among patrons. Considerately, tempered-air lockers are provided for guests to store their coats and other belongings away from the smells of the grill – which, however tantalizing they may be, would not have quite the same appeal when soaked into a wool coat.
The smell is worth a note, however: a delicious, meaty aroma that my dining companion, who spent several years in Japan frequenting yakiniku joints, said was spot on, although (fortunately) without the mingled smell of bug spray often found at cheap chain outlets.
On a recent Friday evening visit, there were enough patrons to give the place a buzz, and most of the back room was filled by a large group. Sitting at the bar up front, the servers hardly missed a beat, promptly bringing out each dish and taking the time to enthusiastically describe each item and the best way to grill it. The menu, which as of press time was not available online, has several options of varying cuts of pork, beef and offal, available with one of five seasonings: onion and salt, miso, butter, barbecue sauce or salt and pepper. There are also several grilled seafood items, as well as mixed vegetables and a range of sides.
Based on our server’s recommendation, we decided to try the chef’s menu, which included a salad and six items for the grill (1,000 CZK for two). It turned out to be an ideal way to get acquainted with yakiniku, as it came with streaky pork (jou buta bara), streaky beef (karubi), salmon, boneless chicken thigh (momo niku), beef tongue (gyu tan) and rib-eye steak, as well as a wakame, or seaweed, salad.
When asked where Yaku sources its ingredients, our server said that everything is imported. In the year before the restaurant opened this spring, he said, they had tried out several local suppliers but found the quality to be inconsistent. So the beef now comes from the U.S., Australia or Argentina, the salmon from Norway or Scotland, and the fish from Canada. For items that require only several seconds over the charcoals, impeccable quality is a must.
Served first was the wakame salad (120 CZK), a refreshing mix of seaweed and crisp iceberg lettuce tossed in an umami-rich dressing of rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame. We also tried the kimchi starter (80 Kc), which proved better than most, with a smoky infusion to the pickley cabbage that helped rein in excessive tartness.
Most of the items on the chef’s menu came with simple salt and pepper, save for butter chicken. Yaku uses powdered salt, which looks like a dusting of flour and provides an even ground for seasoning, and after each plate was produced, our server demonstrated how to cook each one and where to place it on the grill, leaving half of each portion for us to experiment. The slices of beef tongue (140 CZK) had the biggest wow factor; the thin rounds were topped with closely diced spring onions and practically melted in the mouth with an extravagant, smoky flavor, topped off with a squirt of lime juice before being scooped up with chopsticks while still steaming hot.
The wafer-thin ruby-red slices of streaky beef (185 CZK), marbled elegantly, were also incredible. We ate half of them wrapped in leaves of iceberg lettuce, or retasu (48 CZK), with a dab of the accompanying thick miso sauce, studded with sesame seeds. On a return visit, I couldn’t pass up the chance to have the karubi – a fast favorite – again, this time with sticks-fuls of glutinous rice (40 CZK). Likewise, the streaky pork (110 CZK) was delightfully fatty, and the small rectangles were quickly gobbled up. Each took only about 10 seconds on each side to cook, but the whole procession had a rhythm to it that didn’t leave us either rushed or waiting. The strips of rib-eye (360 CZK) were perfectly done but paled in comparison with the karubi or the gyu tan.
The salmon (145 CZK) took even less time, and had a silky, fresh taste more than any farmed variety could hope for. Two large scallops, or hotate (18 CZK) cooked slowly on the edge of the grill, about 10 minutes on each side, and were waiting for us once we finished the rest. They were plump and meaty, with light charring from the grill. A portion of salted mackerel, or saba (165 CZ), was prepared beside the grill and the subtle, delicate flesh – while containing more than a few bones – was a good counterpoint to the bolder meats.
The chicken (120 CZK), which we were instructed to only turn once, had enough brightness to it that was only magnified by the pot of melted butter, heated alongside it on the grill for dipping. Boneless pork ribs (135 CZK), were served as tiny nubs smothered in a thick barbecue sauce, which went well with the rice, as well as a pint of Kocour 12 degree lager from the tap (a not-too-extortionate 48 CZK per half-liter).
Yaku is apparently only the second such Japanese barbecue restaurant in Europe, and one of the servers told us that Prague was chosen as Yaku’s home for its central location in a region with well-established Japanese expat communities. The only minor fault to be found after two visits was that a bottle of white wine had not been sufficiently chilled upon serving, but it cooled to the right temperature in its bucket. Also, on an empty lunch visit when we were the only patrons, the servers seemed slightly bored and, as a result, weren’t as 100% attentive as at a previous dinner. But the quality of the food, and the overall experience, far outweighed these quibbles. For those who are homesick for a bit of yakiniku or just interested in trying something new in Prague, Yaku is sure to impress.
Petrské nám. 5, Prague 1-New Town
Tel. 725 555305
Open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m.
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