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Japanese Is Many Things at Yamabuki

Menu ranges from very traditional to Westernized.

July 30, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yamabuki is a Japanese flower known for abundant golden blossoms. It's also the rather poetic name of a restaurant whose clientele is mostly visitors to Disneyland (it's in the Disneyland Pacific Hotel) but not, all things considered, an ill-chosen one.

The main dining room, perennially overrun by families with small children, is decorated with elegant bonsai, Kabuki masks and Japanese brush paintings.

The tatami rooms in the rear, screened off from the bustle, afford privacy. There is also an elegant, polished cedar sushi bar. That's where I intend to sit next time.

The menu, a handsome gray folder with six pages of Japanese dishes, provides a lengthy description of each--and a key to whether each is very traditional, traditional, contemporary or new style.

Traditional and contemporary mean what they say (in terms of Japanese food). Very traditional apparently means Japanese foods most of us would consider odd, such as squid with fermented soybeans or the octopus dish tako shiokara. New style means Western or Westernized dishes, e.g. deep-fried soft-shell crab, steamed clams or a simple dinner salad.

Ignore the menu key and order what looks interesting. You'll find some delicious appetizers under Refreshing Starters. Edamame, boiled green soybeans in the pods, are an addictive snack, as are shishiamo, or broiled smelt fish; Japanese people usually eat them, head and all, with a squeeze of lemon.

Gyutataki is described as "choice, lean sirloin, lightning seared to a scorched rim and a bright red center." The menu fails to warn that the dish has virtually no flavor, apart from the soy and scallion dipping sauce.

Under the Disneyesque heading Crispy Creations, the best bets are soft-shell crab and agedashi tofu. The tofu dish consists of sizzling-hot fried cubes of bean curd partially cooled by a light, sharp ginger and nameko mushroom broth. The crab is crisply fried in potato batter and indisputably fresh.

Perhaps the worst strategy at Yamabuki would be to order one of the ozen, or complete dinners. These will set you back an average of $25 for a main dish plus rice, one light Japanese appetizer (zensai) and a choice of miso soup or green salad. In light of the uninspired quality of the dishes, this seems pricey.

Take tempura zen, a leaden entree of deep-fried shrimp, whitefish and vegetables--it's a far cry from the ethereally light tempura you'd get in a good Tokyo restaurant. Tonkatsu zen is a breaded pork cutlet cut into bite-sized strips; it's a better effort than the tempura but hardly anyone's idea of delicate.

Unajyu zen is $28 worth of freshwater eel, broiled, brushed with a sweet soy glaze and served on rice. Instead, have an order of eel sushi at the sushi bar at a quarter of the price and without the cloying sauce.

As a matter of fact, have just about anything at the sushi bar. The two chefs there are quite adept and imaginative. One evening, accompanied by a Japanese friend, I ordered omakase ("chef's choice"). We were both delighted with the meal, which was served on artisanal pottery and handsome lacquerware.

We started with raw marinated strips of skinless mackerel (aji tataki) served with a wonderful mixture of grated red peppers and white radish. That was followed by a delightful dish of smoked duck in thin strips, paired with chestnuts stuffed with a sweet pumpkin puree. It was one of the best dishes I've ever tasted in a local Japanese restaurant.

Then came ankimo, the impossibly rich, coral-pink liver of monkfish; Japanese gourmets call it the foie gras of Japan. We finished off with impeccable sushi: mackerel, yellowtail and fatty tuna belly. It was a meal to remember.

Still, there are a few items I'd shy away from, even at the sushi bar. Any hand roll purported to be filled with crab is really made with surimi, that imitation crab made from processed, artificially colored fish. An eggplant dish ordered from a paper menu insert was soggy, apparently because the skin had been removed before the vegetable was braised.

In Japan, people eat seasonally, and this is the time of year for nutritious, refreshing cold wheat noodles (somen) with a cool dipping sauce of soy and nori seaweed.

For warm weather, Yamabuki makes good steamed dishes. Two to keep in mind for cooler months are chawan mushi, a light custard laced with shrimp, chicken and shiitake mushroom, and dobin mushi: shrimp and mushrooms cooked slowly in a savory broth and served in a miniature teapot.

In summer, you can cool down even more with the only real dessert here, mochi ice cream--tiny scoops of ice cream wrapped in sticky rice (great kid food). Good flavors are ginger, plum and green tea.

There's a nice selection of premium imported sakes, hot and cold. The sakes may have the effect of putting you in touch with your own poetic aspects, which will make Yamabuki appear all the more serene.

Yamabuki is expensive. Starters are $4.50 to $12. Crispy Creations are $7.50 to $15. Ozen are $22 to $28. Sushi is $3.50 to $15.

BE THERE

Yamabuki, at Disneyland Pacific Hotel, 1717 S. West St., Anaheim. (714) 239-5683. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily. All major cards.

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