It only took the first bite of Yamame’s imported Japanese scallop nigiri to remind me why I still go to high-end sushi restaurants such as this. Despite the advent of assembly-line poke shops and all-you-can-eat sushi emporiums that promise cheaper, more convenient ways to consume raw fish, none of it can supplant the sheer pleasure of eating sushi cut from an ultra-high-grade piece of seafood. As soon as I started chewing, I could tell this scallop—which travelled from the coast of Hokkaido—was the very best it could be. It was creamy, sweet, faintly salty, and tasted of the oceanic depths from whence it came. And then there was the incredible texture, which was somewhere between almond jelly and the softest part of my inner cheek.
But it was more than just the scallop’s provenance; it was how the chef prepared it. He cut the flesh in such a way that the top was level and the sides draped down like the earflaps of a hunter’s cap. And I loved the rice, which, any student of sushi will tell you, is just as important as the fish. It had the right amount of vinegar tang and sweetness, the grains compacted tightly enough to hold its shape but loose enough that it fell apart on my tongue. Most important, it was still warm, which added to the yin-yang dance battle that was happening inside my mouth—the coolness vs. the warmth, the savory vs. the sweet.
The rice also elevated the nigiri of beni toro, fatty salmon belly, which was cut thickly to show off its marbling. As the fish melted into decadence, it sent me into an out-of-body experience to which I’m now eager to return. If I didn’t need to try other dishes, I would’ve stayed within the nigiri list to do it over and over again. In fact, Yamame offers a prix-fixe option of its omakase for this purpose. You could pay $22 to get one piece each of the first seven fish on the nigiri list, or $33 for the first 10. Either sum is actually quite reasonable for sushi of this caliber.
Unlike other sushi masters, Yamame’s chefs are also neither above serving rolls nor bestowing upon them such fanciful names as “Lion King” and “Wow.” The most expensive roll—the restaurant’s namesake—features modern sushi-bar ingredients of lobster, sliced jalapeño and mango. Wrapped in soy paper and absent of rice, you get the feeling it was designed for the Coto de Caza housewife who might demand something carb-free. For sure, it’s the prettiest thing on the menu. A piece of celery was carved into a dramatic curlicue, and a naked lobster claw was stuck upright to resemble a sea monster reaching out from the deep. And thanks to the sticky-sweet, house-made sauce that the chefs swirled into amulets with dabs of mayo, it also tasted good.
As it’s located in the leafy master-planned suburbs of Rancho Santa Margarita, where the demographics skew 78 percent white, Yamame might need to do these kinds of rolls for survival. The neighborhood seems to expect it. The rest of the menu has predictable offerings of edamame in both regular and garlic-flavored. And a second kitchen with a different chef outputs tempura and small plates of izakaya-style food for those who might think eating raw fish is icky. Yamame does, however, stop short of resorting to teriyaki chicken and bento boxes.
Of all the dishes you can have outside of the raw stuff, the karaage is flawless and greaseless. In fact, it’s almost miraculous how well these boneless morsels of sake-and-soy-marinated chicken were fried. Mahogany-hued and crispy on the outside while remaining supple and juicy on the inside, the karaage arrives rippling-hot inside a traditional wooden bowl with a decoratively cut wedge of lemon and a Thousand Island-like sauce for dipping. Let it be the only side dish you order here.
Avoid the yakisoba, which despite chewy noodles and flecks of pork belly, swam in grease. Instead, if you’re still feeling peckish, opt for the sashimi salad, which uses two generous cuts each of the tuna, salmon and albacore nestled in a tartly dressed spring lettuce mix. When I did the math, I realized it was a cheaper way to get more of that sublime sushi bar fish rather than ordering them à la carte. Make no mistake, though: A meal here will still cost plenty. But great sushi like this is never cheap nor will it involve the words “all-you-can-eat.”
Yamame, 31441 Santa Margarita Pkwy., Ste. J, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 713-1818. Open for lunch, Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-3 p.m.; dinner, daily, 4:30-9:30 p.m. Appetizers and small plates, $3-$15; sushi and sashimi, $7-$45; rolls, $6.50-$20. Sake and beer.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.