Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coba-Yakko-San - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Hiro-San

Tuna and Salmon Sashimi Salad

There is no restaurant I have eaten at more often than Hiro's Yakko-San. I literally can not count the times: for the past five years we've been there probably an average of once a month, but often as frequently as weekly, with Sunday dinner at Yakko-San being something of a family tradition. So yeah, I kind of like it.

Our kids grew up on their chicken katsu and kurobuta pork sausages, later finding their own favorites among the more than 100 items on the menu (for Little Miss F: kimchi tofu, octopus ceviche, seabass miso, lotus root kimpira; for Frod Jr., edamame, salmon onigiri, yakiniku don, shoyu ramen). For years Yakko-San was located in a hole-in-the-wall on Dixie Highway where the waits for tables often flowed out the front door. Recently they moved to a bigger, fancier location on 163rd Street Causeway which has more than enough room for everyone. It also has room to set aside a space for 30 guinea pigs, giving us an opportunity to do a Cobaya dinner there.

The Cobaya "mission statement" is pretty much parallel to what the Japanese call "omakase," or "It's up to you, chef." That's what we told Chef Hiro-san, and he prepared a seven-course meal, many of which had multiple components. I will be candid in saying that I was hoping it might be more adventurous - this was more crowd-pleaser stuff - but especially for those who had never been to the restaurant before, it was a good introduction to Yakko-San's" izakaya-style (often called "Japanese tapas") repertoire.

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobaYakkoSan flickr set. Here is the menu, with further descriptions and pictures below:

Chamame Edamame
Plum Wine
Tuna, Salmon Sashimi Salad
Crispy Fish Onion Salad
Nigori Sake
Shrimp Spicy Mayo, Fried Oyster
Hitosuji Junmai Sake
Kalbee Yakiniku and Spinach Butter
Akita Junmai Ginjo Sake
Seabass Miso Yaki
Kikuizumi Dai Ginjo Sake
Uni Garlic Pasta
Assorted Maki
Iki na Ona Dai Ginjo
Green Tea and Orange Mochi Ice Cream, Strawberry with Mint Cream
Dessert Pear Sake

(continued ...)

We started with "chamame" edamame, a premium variety of brown-skinned soy beans from Niigata prefecture which are a classic "otsumame," or drinking snack. While the darker pigment seems to fade with steaming, these had a more developed, nuttier flavor than typical edamame.

Crispy Fish Onion Salad

This was followed with a couple of salads, served family style. The sashimi salad used a mix of soft lettuces draped with ribbons of raw salmon and tuna, dressed with a soy and ginger dressing. The crispy fish onion salad (a semi-regular order for us on our visits, though I think it's dropped off the printed menu) featured chunks of fried fish tossed with crescents of raw onion, daikon sprouts, grape tomatoes and coins of thinly sliced radish in a dressing redolent with soy and sesame oil.

Sashimi Plate

The next course was probably my favorite of the evening, a sashimi sampler with four different items. A slice of tilefish was given a "nuta ae" treatment, wrapped around wilted green onions and drizzled with a mustardy miso sauce. Hamachi was done much like a ceviche or tiradito, in a brightly citrusy yuzu sauce and crowned with slivers of jalapeño and a cilantro leaf. Salmon was smoked in-house and garnished with a sun-dried tomato paste and a dab of sour cream. And tuna was wrapped around a spoonful of guacamole, garnished with mayo and a sweet soy reduction, all served on a shiso leaf. Four very different flavor compositions using raw fish as their starting point, each nicely balanced.

Shrimp Spicy Mayo and Fried Oyster

A duo of fried items made up the next course: on one side, fried shrimp in spicy mayo, on the other, fried oysters over a tartar sauce. The shrimp are a spin on the iconic Nobu creamy spicy tempura shrimp. Fried and then sauced with a mix of mayo and chili sauce, they are not so much shatteringly crunchy as mildy crispy and creamy at the same time. The oysters, crusted in panko crumbs, were perfectly fried, crisp outside without being overcooked inside, not an easy feat to pull off for 30 plates.

Kalbee Yakiniku and Spinach Butter

Yakiniku is likely something of a Korean transplant to Japan which took root following World War II, following the Korean custom of grilling bite-sized cuts of meat that have been marinated in a soy-based sauce sweetened with sugar and/or mirin and spiced with garlic and sesame. Yakko-San's Kalbee Yakiniku was a faithful rendition, with cross-cut slices of short rib a bit thicker than often seen, so that the meat stayed juicy and tender. The ribs were served with a mound of pleasingly chewy blanched spinach leaves in a butter sauce.

Sea Bass Miso Yaki

Yakko-San's sea bass miso yaki is another very typical dish that became a Nobu signature item (using black cod) and is now seen everywhere. The grilled fish breaks apart into large translucent flakes with an almost gelatinous texture, enhanced by the complex nutty, salty, sweet flavor of the miso marinade.

Uni Garlic Pasta

As a final savory course, we were served Yakko-San's uni garlic pasta, spaghetti tossed in a garlicky butter sauce enriched with sea urchin roe, with a scatter of shredded nori on top. This may well be a dish that comes off better when prepared individually, as the complex marine flavor of the uni was sort of dissipated here. A little tip: ask for the "three eggs" version of this dish with uni, ikura (salmon roe) and mentaiko (spicy cod roe).

The pasta was served with an assortment of various maki which honestly were not really my style, my favorite of the bunch being the unagi shrimp battera. Battera is a style of sushi from Osaka in which the rice and fish are pressed into a box and then cut into blocky squares. It's most often topped with saba (vinegar-marinated mackerel), which you can also find on Yakko-San's new sushi menu.


The dessert plating was a pleasant surprise. A green tea mochi ice cream (a sticky, chewy shell of pounded glutinous rice surrounding the ice cream) was drizzled with sweet adzuki bean sauce, an orange mochi ice cream was served unadorned, and a fat fresh strawberry crowned a really nice subtly-flavored mint cream.

For those who opted for the pairing, they poured a different sake for each of the courses, going from a cloudy, milky unfiltered nigori sake to a fruit-infused pear sake with the dessert. I really know very little about sake, but it was interesting to compare the range of flavors and styles, which included samplings of junmai, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo sakes. If I understand my sake terminology correctly, "junmai" means there is no added alochol, and ginjo and daiginjo refer to the extent of polishing that the rice grains receive before fermentation.[1]

Given the number of times I've been to Yakko-San, this dinner held few surprises for me, particularly since they didn't stray too far from their regular menu offerings. But with a menu that holds more than 100 choices, there were still some items even I'd never tried before. (To get an idea of what that really means, take a look at one of the first posts I did here, where I attempted to list the things I'd then sampled at Yakko-San; and that was more than two years ago.) And for the newcomers, it hopefully provided a good insight into why this is one of my favorite places in Miami.

While creative contemporary cuisine has been the (attempted) primary focus of Cobaya, we've been giving thought lately to also doing dinners that focus on "authentic" regional cuisine.[2] Our Yakko-San dinner might have been something of a test run for that idea. If it's something that would interest you, please let us know.

Many thanks to Chef Hiro-san and all of his crew for putting together our dinner, to Mrs. May for all of her help in organizing, and most of all and as always, to all the guinea pigs who make these events possible.

Hiro's Yakko-San
3881 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach, FL

[1]Junmai is polished to at least 70% (i.e., 30% of the rice grain is milled away by "polishing"), while ginjo is polished to at least 60% and daiginjo to at least 50%. Each represents a successive degree of refinement in flavor as well. I do have a somewhat fuzzy recollection that the ginjo had more prominent fruity flavors and a somewhat heavier texture, while the daiginjo had more prominent flowery aromatics and a cleaner more refined flavor and finish. I'm not necessarily convinced that one is automatically better than the other, just different styles.

[2]"Authentic" is always a loaded term, but perhaps becomes even more complicated when you're talking about izakaya food, where there is a genre of cuisine in Japan of foods that (often imperfectly or unusually) adapt Western food customs (called "yoshuku"), which is then echoed back once again in some Yakko-San menu items. For a good take on yoshoku, check out "Spaghetti Stir-Fry and Hambagoo: Japan Looks West" in the NY Times.


  1. This could've been a segway into the 'authenticity' discussion. It's interesting how western-influenced eastern cuisine seems to hold some merit and is even given a name which lends it more credibility, while eastern-influenced western cuisine is considered non-authentic or bastardized. How are items such as crab rangoon and suki-yaki not as 'real' as western-influenced izakaya food? Just some food for thought.
    Looking at this menu really makes me want to drive to Yakko-San right now. You are right about stating that this is a great intro to Yakko's menu for the unfamiliar and a blessing moreso that they can go there any night of the week and re-live their favorite parts of the meal (or reasonable facsimiles thereof).
    So, what's next? A Naoe Cobaya? (or is that basically what Kevin does every single night).

  2. If you haven't seen it yet, there's a really good piece discussing "authenticity" by Todd Kliman in Lucky Peach, the official magazine of the Momofuku empire.

  3. I am wondering if you've tried Marumi Sushi in Plantation and if so, what did you think? I'm hoping to get there soon.

  4. I have heard good things about Marumi but haven't been up there yet.