Morsels of art from a true master

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Morsels of art from a true master

Great sushi is a destination in itself, and Yamamoto Sushi ― named for its owner, who could fairly be called the only real Japanese sushi master in town ― certainly qualifies.
Nevertheless, this establishment, tucked away on a back street in the Cheongdam-dong fashion district, has maintained something of a low profile in the three years it’s been there. But some sushi connoisseurs know about it.
It has an extensive menu, from a la carte sushi to sashimi platters to course meals with a variety of side dishes. But for sushi-starved epicures, anything but pure sushi would be a waste of money.
Special Sushi, which costs 35,000 won ($29) plus 10-percent VAT, will get you a round of a dozen or so assorted bites. But to light up the chefs at the sushi bar, order Choice Sushi (55,000 or 65,000 won for lunch; 65,000 to 80,000 won for dinner). This means leaving the entire gastronomic adventure in the hands of the chefs, who will proudly and skillfully present the cream of the day’s crop.
For a sushi master, of course, his craft is like a religion. As I watched, an elderly man with a serious, almost scholarly expression walked in like a priest in a ceremony. His two assistants moved aside and introduced him to diners: “Here is Yamamoto-san.”
Three chefs bowed and took orders. “Will akami and o-toro be included?” I asked, with great anticipation.
“We have all kinds of toro, you just name the part you wish,” a Korean chef replied.
When Mr. Yamamoto and his two assistants got down to work, their concentration became so intense, their movements so swift, that it was as if no one were allowed to speak. A few minutes passed while I ate salad, clam soup and green-tea-infused mountain yam. I looked up and there it was, perched atop a ceramic plate, the first moist and wondrous morsel: o-toro, the tastiest part of the tuna’s belly.
How was it? It was a soft slab of gorgeously marbled pink meat that melted like butter, leaving behind a sweet and creamy aftertaste.
The chefs continued to sculpt more delectable creations: hamachi (yellowtail), suzuki (sea bass), amaebi (sweet prawn), uni (sea urchin roe), akagai (red clam), ikura (salmon roe). Ikura had never been so vivid and spectacular; suzuki turned up with a new fusion element, avocado puree.
A native of Fukuoka, Sadao Yamamoto is a sushi chef trained at Benkei, a better-known Tokyo sushi restaurant which has an outlet, Momoyama, in central Seoul’s Lotte Hotel. Mr. Yamamoto came to Korea in 1986 to work as a sushi chef at the hotel, and three years ago opened his own restaurant.
Yamamoto Sushi is free of the garlic scent that is typical of Japanese restaurants in Korea. Mr. Yamamoto does not serve maeuntang (spicy Korean stew), only Japanese chiri, a clear fish broth.
“Do you like sake, Yamamoto-san?” I asked in Japanese. “No, I don’t drink much sake,” he said. With sushi, I drink green tea.”
So I did the same. “It’s Japanese sencha. I’m not supposed to tell you any more,” he said, with a coy smile.
He said the fish was local, but all the cooking ingredients, including wasabi, soy sauce, katsuo (dried bonito) and noodles, were from Japan. “But our toro comes from Spain. Compared with regular, large ones, the Spanish tuna tastes more delicate, because it’s originally a smaller species, and it was made big with a special feed.”
“We get about 30 kilograms of meat three times a week and do the cutting ourselves,” a Korean chef said as he presented a chu-toro ― another slab of beautifully marbled pink meat, this one extracted from the middle of the tuna’s belly.
I ate a piece of gari (pickled ginger) to cleanse my palate before popping the sushi. Compared to o-toro (a single o-toro sushi costs 13,000 won), chu-toro (10,000 won) is slightly fattier-tasting, but still extremely tender and delicious. After two major bites of toro, I’m deliriously happy.
Now it’s time to test the sushi chef who seemed to know it all. “So where is the fresh wasabi?” I demanded kindly. A Korean chef went out for a fresh root and came back with the reply, “Sorry, we cannot find it in storage today, but our regular wasabi is fresh.”
The apologetic chefs tried to cheer me up by offering something dramatic. Mr. Yamamoto fired up a blowtorch, scorched a slice of fish and said, “This is toro, too. Try.”
Here was another morsel of toro, cooked in a flash and topped with salsa sauce. “In Japan, we only season it with simple salt and lemon, but I make it a little spicy in Korea,” he explained. I’m thrilled with the exuberant taste of “sushi Latino.”
“You like it? How about this one?” He lit up the torch again to cook sea urchin roe, scallop and rice bound by a thin strip of nori (black seaweed paper).
I thought the uncooked version was better, but I gave him a deep nod. I could compliment Mr. Yamamoto all day, and it was worth it: My mouth gaped when I got a kama-toro sushi, the choice “cheek” behind the gill of tuna, which went down like a ball of cream.
In the meantime, a floor staff member brought over a rare and exotic dish, matsutake no dobin-mushi, a teapot of pine mushroom, shrimp, ginkgo nuts and mitsuba leaf. When poured into a sake cup, the aromatic perfume of pine mushroom and the clear broth were incredibly seductive to smell and taste.
Mr. Yamamoto then offered a piece of sushi that looked like a tiny work of art. “Don’t dip in soy sauce, just eat it as it is, please. It’s yamaimo.” It was two thin slabs of perfectly chilled snow-white mountain yam and pink berry sauce over rice, tied with a thin strip of plum leaf. The crunchy yet slimy yam got better as the sweet, tangy sauce kicked in ― a dessert sushi!
One of the most memorable meals I’ve had in recent years ended with cordial bows from the chefs, followed by quintessentially Japanese green tea soba and green tea ice cream.
Even as I was appreciating the noodles and ice cream, I wondered, “Whatever happened to the akami?”

by Ines Cho
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