When Yasu Hashino opened Yasu Sushi Bistro in a nondescript North Phoenix strip mall in 2006, a new and exciting chapter in the annals of Phoenix restaurant history was about to be written. Ten years later, this humble guy has quietly distinguished himself as one of Phoenix’s premier Japanese chefs – an innovator who, much like Shinji Kurita (late of ShinBay) and Nobuo Fukuda (Nobuo at Teeter House), hews to Japanese culinary tradition while enriching and expanding its scope.
But that’s not news. What is: He’s better than ever.
Hashino’s emphasis has shifted over the years, to the extent that the words “sushi bistro” no longer seem apt. Having worked his way up the ladder at Sushi on Shea (in its heyday under Fred Yamada) and highly regarded Shimogamo, the chef was undoubtedly steeped in sushi culture when he founded Yasu. No longer. Though his erect posture, laser focus and samurai-like discipline are still very much intact, Hashino has moved away from the mainstream, recently taking sushi rolls off the menu entirely in a symbolic gesture that speaks volumes about his intent.
These days, cozy YSB seems even more like a modern-day, Tokyo-style izakaya pub than ever before, offering Japanese beer, shōchū and artisanal sakes – all made by small producers, some impossible to find anywhere else in Arizona – to complement small plates that dazzle with ingenuity. There’s sushi, to be sure; nigiri mostly, elevated by Hashino’s deft touches and his incredibly good sushi rice. But the dishes you’ll remember days, even months, after dining here will surely be elegant sashimi combos or Japanese charcoal-grilled meat and seafood selections redolent with smoke or char – ephemeral, dream-like dishes you won’t necessarily find on the regular Yasu menu.
Don’t get me wrong. The everyday menu offers its fair share of thrills, including Hashino’s famously decadent bamboo-wrapped beef tongue, braised for eight hours with scallions and miso and finished on a tableside hibachi, each captivating bite caramelized and bubbling.
Still, the best adventure is his off-the-menu omakase – loosely translated as something like “I’m in your hands.” It’s a multi-course dinner created with luxurious and sometimes hard-to-come-by ingredients the chef selects just for you.
Hashino requires at least five days’ notice to order the seafood (much of it coming from Tokyo) and plan the menu. He speaks to his supplier every day to determine the freshest and best product to buy. Suffice to say, it’s not hard to spend $400 (including tip) on elegant sake and eight courses that will put you and a companion into blissful food and drink comas. But it’s also possible to be far more circumspect – ordering, say, two oysters instead of six – and still create a memorable experience that won’t max out your credit card. Hashino is down for whatever, as long as you explain ahead of time what the parameters should be in terms of portions and number of courses. It’s your party.
But you will want at least six of his hay-smoked oysters; that I can guarantee. Sometimes Hashino uses plump Pacific oysters from Washington, sometimes pricier Kumamotos, prized for their sweet, fruity notes. Either way, they’re fabulous. Hashino smokes them in the shell, the hay imparting grassy sweetness to the oysters’ buttery undertone. Slurping up the equally smoky liquor at the bottom of the shells is half the fun.
If you love egg dishes, ask for chawanmushi, a savory custard which Hashino fortifies with edamame, yakitori-style jidori chicken (charred and juicy), dashi (umami-laden broth) and strained foie gras. It’s ethereally light but also rich, a fabulous riff on a Japanese classic.
The most quintessentially Japanese offering of the evening, however, is six little bundles of tiny shimeji mushrooms, as delicate as fairy wands, wrapped in silvery, rose-tinted slices of raw Japanese red snapper, topped with Santa Barbara sea urchin and surrounded by quivering cubes of dashi gelée. Their taste is the subtle extraction of sea and smoke.
The wild-caught baby squid from Portland, the most tender I’ve ever eaten, arrives flambéed with butter, garlic, soy and sake – an ultra-rich dish that has a meaty, umami quality thanks to the sauce. Salmon may not sound particularly exciting, but Hashino’s salt- and vinegar-cured version certainly is. Smoked with cherry blossoms and flecked with Hawaiian sea salt, it’s simple and sublime. Ask for it.
If you can’t imagine coming to a Japanese restaurant without eating sushi, Hashino will happily oblige. Just don’t expect business as usual. He may give you a selection of six nigiri, artfully arranged on a board and adorned with tiny dabs of this and drizzles of that. You might receive bigeye tuna, marinated first in soy, sweet sake and yuzu kosho (a paste of chile peppers, citrus peel, garlic, salt and pepper); buttery Japanese yellowtail, topped with fresh wasabi; salmon, torch-seared to coax out its sweetness, then topped with green onion and a bit of bonito flakes; Norwegian mackerel, fatty from cold waters, feathered with grated ginger; octopus wrapped cross-wise with a strap of nori (seaweed) and topped with tart Japanese plum sauce; and sweet amaebi (spot prawns), lightly torched and served with nothing but fresh lemon and Hawaiian rock salt – the lightly battered and crisply fried heads of each crustacean offered as a crunchy treat.
If sushi makes you feel like a fish out of water, take heart. Hashino also serves up a wonderfully tender and flavorful center cut of rib-eye (smallish; this isn’t Mastro’s), marinated for 12 hours in olive oil, garlic and mirepoix, then grilled, glazed with sweet soy sauce and sided with a tiny gravy boat of jus enriched with foie gras. It’s insanely good.
But I’m beginning to repeat myself. Just go. It’s way cheaper than a trip to Tokyo.
Yasu Sushi Bistro
Contact: 4316 E. Cactus Rd., Phoenix, 602-787-9181
Hours: Tu-F 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; M-Th 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; F-Sa 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Highlights: Braised beef tongue ($17.50), hay-smoked oysters (half dozen, $30), chawanmushi ($19), mushrooms with red snapper and uni ($22), marinated rib-eye with foie gras jus ($28); smoked cherry blossom salmon ($20)
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