If we had to choose a holy grail of food, my son and I would say it is spicy tuna rolls. We have searched for a local source where a perfect specimen means more fish, more spice and way less mushy, mayonnaise filling. We have found it and more at Yama Sushi House, 134 South Orange Avenue.
Yama has been in its South Orange location for years but has a "Grand Opening" banner flying because it is under new management. I had never been, no matter who was running it, and I figured it was about time since it looked to have good prices and we are getting to the point where sushi spending is threatening the wellbeing of our children's' college accounts.
At 8:30 on a hot July weeknight, we entered. It was empty. Uh, oh. What did we do? Haven't we all heard that "turnover" is key to fresh sushi?
A gracious young woman ushered us to a table, gave us menus and brought glasses of water (note: they do not serve ice). As we perused the menu, we were offered the opportunity to "become members" for a 10% discount off our next purchase. I'd never had pressure to buy into sushi futures. Looking around at the empty furniture, we weren't sure who was coming at all, let alone back to make another purchase.
The menu was concise with a picture of every item (stock photos make everything look tasty, right?). The sushi chef looked at us hopefully -- as if he had been waiting all day for someone to give him a task. It was hot (really, no ice?) and I couldn't help thinking about the freshness of fish in a warm room.
Decent etiquette trumped prematurely departing. But all bets were off on capturing The Tuna Roll Grail. Yama's menu offers a "double-spicy" tuna ($9.99) – and theme or not, I was hedging my bets by doubling down. And although we are fairly sophisticated in sushi tastes, my son and husband took my cautious lead and went with two simple items: basic spicy tuna and yellowtail rolls ($10.99).
I am not exaggerating when I say that with our first bites came wide-eyed disbelief. Not only was this sushi's quality good, it was fresh and noticeably flavorful without "fishy-ness." My double-spicy sushi was the real thing. No soggy paste of fish tidbits. It was generous eight piece "inside-out" spicy tuna roll topped with a sliver of fresh tuna, avocado and a dash of true hot sauce. My son gave his spicy tuna the ultimate nod of a 9 year old: "This rocks!"
Since then, we make regular Yama take-outs including bento boxes ($9.99 and $10.99) of various teriyakis (our teenaged daughter gives the sauces and dumplings high marks). Dinners (as opposed to individual maki rolls) come with soup and salad. As big fans of ginger dressing, we appreciate the large salad portions.
In the name of science (and journalism), I have eaten more than just my now sacred standard. To be decadent, with my double spicy tuna, I ordered the Las Vegas roll: deep-fried spicy tuna and cream cheese ($8.99). And out of sheer curiosity, with my double spicy tuna, I got the "baked salmon roll." The fish is warm but partnered with cool cucumber ($9.99).
There are a few catchy alternative rolls: I can't do crab myself, but if I could I would go with the delicious looking Mars roll: shrimp tempura and crab salad topped with tuna and avocado ($11.49). On the down side, there is a lot of repetition to the menu. But if you like shrimp, what could be better than the "Shrimp on Shrimp" ($9.99) described as "shrimp and lemon on spicy shrimp roll?"
So we found a new food Mecca. But I was concerned about business traffic. It was just us and the sushi chef every time we came in to gather an order. But last weekend, when I actually dined in, my concerns were waylaid. Within minutes of our arrival, three other tables of eaters sat down to order and during our meal, two people came in to pick up take-out.
On that outing I really broke the mold and had the "mini combo": regular spicy tuna rolls, a sampling of sashimi and seven mini sushi pieces ($10.99). The fish pieces were fresh and firm. My vegetarian dinner mate had, and was pleased with her various vegetable rolls (cucumber, oshinko, avocado), miso soup and large salad.
As part of my recent "epicurean research," I have asked friends to try Yama and report back. So far, I've received nothing but good responses including accolades for the basics like California rolls ($4.29)and their kid-friendly attitude. But the best review came from a friend's 5th grader who said that his eel platter ($10.99) was "excellent." And darned if that doesn't sound like the next thing I'll get with my double spicy tuna roll.
By the way, if you like consulting or ordering from an on-line menu Yama provides a good one. Whoever is working on this site has made a simple, modern space and is using savvy marketing strategies like a Grand Opening contest offering prizes of an iPad, iTouch and Yama gift certificates. One entry form per person, per visit.