Nestled inside the inner core of retail shops at SouthPark’s Morrison shopping center, adventurous diners will find Yama Asian Fusion, an elegant jewel-box of a restaurant serving not-so-traditional Japanese style cuisine with a decidedly contemporary flair.
Birdie Yang, Yama’s owner and ubiquitous host, works his magic and can guide you through Yama’s extensive menu and Charlotte’s largest and most comprehensive sake offerings. Together with his wife, Janine Lu, Yang has established a welcoming and convivial atmosphere more akin to a Japanese country inn than a bustling urban eatery.
Yang and Lu are natives of Fujian Province, China. The couple married only 18 months ago after meeting not in their homeland, but through mutual friends in New York City. It was a storybook connection, as each was attending separate weddings that occurred simultaneously in adjacent space. With love in the air, the relationship clicked.
Yang and Lu share not only geographic origins but also lifelong ties to the restaurant industry and a passion for sharing their love and knowledge of fine dining with their patrons.
Yang moved to the U.S. in 1989. He followed his father, Larry, an accomplished chef who took his classical Japanese style culinary training and brought it to various fine dining establishments in New York City. Larry Yang has been a sushi chef for 30 years and trained under one of the first sushi chefs in America. It is his expertise in both Japanese and Chinese cuisine that allows Yama to deliver true East-meets-East fare.
“It is not at all unusual for a Japanese restaurant to have Chinese ownership,” says Yang, who moved to Charlotte after helping in friends’ restaurants in New York, Arizona and L.A. He opened Yama in 2007 with his father as main culinary influence and master sushi chef.
Yama is the Japanese word for “mountain.” The name foreshadows the peak experience diners enjoy at the hands of their hosts.
When my wife and I dined with another couple recently, we put ourselves completely in Yang’s charge, allowing him to choose the evening’s menu. We were amply rewarded with not only a custom meal perfect for sharing but also spot-on sake pairings from Yama’s vast collection of more than 50 varieties.
Yang recently received the rare and coveted Advanced Sake Professional (ASP) certification by the Sake Education Council after completing its Level II Sake Professional course in Japan. Yang is now one of fewer than 100 ASPs in the world. “Experiencing fine sake is every bit as pleasurable and nuanced as tasting fine wines,” says Yang, whose designation is akin to that of a master wine sommelier.
“The sake-making process is more like brewing beer than making wine,” Yang explains. “The primary ingredients for sake are rice and water, yet the flavor profiles and variety you’ll find are infinite.” Yang explained the grading system established to distinguish types of sake based upon the rice polishing process and whether any distilled alcohol is added.
We started with Gingo sake served slightly chilled and paired with a light seaweed salad. The crisp, clean sake with a fruity nose and melon undertones was the perfect foil for the slightly salty, toasted sesame oil dressed starter.
This was followed by delicate gyoza, a Japanese version of pot stickers or pan-fried dumplings. These bite-sized crescents are steamed, then seared crispy and stuffed with seasoned pork. Served with savory/sweet dipping sauce, they offer a touch of heat and hint of ginger.
Prefer the Chinese version of dumplings? Yama has shrimp shu mai on its menu just for you.
Next up was a special treat, extra large broiled squid in a slightly sweet house-made teriyaki glaze. Almost steak-like in consistency, the squid yielded nicely to my fork and in combination with the light glaze was a welcomed preparation in contrast to deep fried calamari.
A buttery sushi/sashimi platter was next with nice fatty tuna, halibut, shrimp and salmon beautifully perched atop a mountain of shredded daikon.
Yang featured the highest grade of the premium sakes and poured a Daiginjo tasting to complement the fresh fish. Daiginjo sake is characterized by its lightness, complexity on the palate and a long, pleasing finish. Far and away my favorite sake of the evening, I enjoyed hints of honey and even strawberry as I savored it with my sushi.
The picked-clean platter of sushi was whisked away only to be replaced by Yama’s special udon noodles. Long rice noodles tossed with lightly stir-fried asparagus, oyster mushrooms and scallions, this dish found each of us surrendering our chopsticks for forks in order to corral every last bite.
A fine display of tempura was to follow with Japanese root vegetables paired with plump, juicy shrimp and, in addition to traditional tempura dipping sauce, a spicy house-made chili aioli that was just the right touch.
Yang told me on an earlier visit that his very favorite item on Yama’s menu was “Hot Spring Fish,” a Chilean sea bass steak simply prepared by steaming in a light soy/ginger/scallion sauce. When this aromatic dish landed on our table, each of our “too full for more” objections were immediately overruled as we managed without difficulty to enjoy what was now our favorite dish as well.
With still another style of sake he wished us to try, Yang brought out a bottle with a cloudy, almost milky liquid that didn’t at all resemble the crystal clear sake we’d enjoyed up to this point. “This is specialty sake,” Yang told us, “It is processed through a larger mesh filter that allows some of the rice into the sake, lending some texture to the drink.”
Sweet, almost chewy in mouthfeel, this variety was my wife’s favorite and a perfect closer to an incredible meal. After a final scoop of red bean ice cream, four very contented diners were already making plans for a return. There are no hurried meals at Yama, only tasty and creative Asian fare served at a casual yet attentive pace with plenty of time to enjoy the company of your dining companions and, if you choose, take advantage of the extensive culinary knowledge of your hosts.
Want to go?
Yama Asian Fusion
720 Governor Morrison Street, Suite 130
Charlotte, NC 28211
Hours: Open nightly for dinner, lunch Mon-Sat.
Mon-Thurs: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun: 5-10 p.m.
RECIPESYama Asian Fusion Cherry Blossom Cocktail
The Cherry Blossom is a light and refreshing cocktail with a tropical feel and crisp vibrancy that comes from a splash of premium sake.
In a tall 8- to 10-ounce glass combine the following over crushed ice:
1.5 ounces strawberry flavored vodka
1 ounce Ginjo sake
1 ounce guava juice
1/2 ounce orange liquor
Juice from half of a lime
Stir until combined and top with club soda. Serve garnished with sliced strawberry or lime wedge. Serves one.
Yama Asian Fusion Salmon Mango Blossom with Honey/Yuzu dressing
Two lush main ingredients combine into the perfect starter or light entree. Yuzu is a sour Asian citrus fruit that is commonly used in sauces and dressings.
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons yuzu juice4 ounces sashimi grade salmon, diced
2 ounces ripe mango, diced
Cucumber, daikon or lettuce (optional)
Combine mayonnaise, honey and yuzu juice well and set aside. In a small mixing bowl combine salmon and mango with dressing. Serve over top cucumber flower, shredded daikon or lettuce. Serves one.