Of all the restaurant rows in Broward and Palm Beach counties -- Harrison Street in Hollywood, Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Clematis Street in West Palm Beach -- Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach appears the most successful, at least on one recent weekend evening. The two-lane street was so backed up it looked like a Tokyo traffic jam. Sidewalks were as busy as beehives (though bees generally have more purpose than the countless, aimless strollers linked arm-in-arm on the smooth pavement). Restaurants were so overwhelmed with customers even the new places like Safari Steak House, Louie Louie Too, and Sundy House (just off Atlantic Avenue on Swinton Avenue) boasted waits of at least 60 minutes at the height of the dinner hour.
When business is this good, a spur-of-the-moment diner doesn't stand a chance. Without a reservation or even a firm destination in mind, a hungry soul usually winds up at the only eatery with available seating, which hardly ever bodes well for the meal ahead. When every other place is filled to brimming like a coffee cup, the reasoning goes, something must be wrong with the one that has empty tables.
Of course, there are delicious exceptions to this rule, and the two-year-old Japanese restaurant Yama, located on the eastern end of Atlantic Avenue, is one of them. I had originally traveled to Delray Beach to dine at the aforementioned Sundy House, a two-month-old tropical restaurant that purportedly has beautiful botanical gardens. But the place doesn't take reservations for parties of less than six, though it should start, given that the valets were so overwhelmed they had to close the parking lot and the wait for a table stretched to two hours. Parking inconveniences aside, the only thing for which I'll drum my fingers for 120 minutes is an international plane flight.
Yama wasn't exactly suffering a dearth of diners -- the eatery with its clean lines, black speckled floor, and pure white walls had enough customers to make the pace of service uneven: Drink refills were a long time coming, and dishes came out one by one as they were ready. But the overall rapid turnover in the two connected dining rooms ensured open tables, and the staff was glad to accommodate us.
Judging the restaurant, however incorrectly, by the available seating, we ordered cautiously at first. Just a couple of appetizers, we figured, would reveal the worth of the place. Then, if we weren't happy, we could have main courses elsewhere -- a progressive dinner. One of the delights of these restaurant rows is that you don't have to settle down for a three-course meal at any single restaurant. We could have sushi for starters, steak for entrees, and the Old Schoolhouse Bread Company cakes for dessert.
If we'd gone solely by the starter of oshitashi, steamed spinach in a slightly sweet sauce, we might have actually followed through with this plan. The light, brothy sauce was tasty, but the three little mounds of spinach had obviously been improperly thawed. The interiors were icy while the chopped spinach on the outside was slightly warm. We found the same problem with an order of gyoza, deep-fried meat dumplings. The six crescent-shaped pastries were pleasantly light and crunchy, flavorful with scallions and a soy dipping sauce. But the molded chopped meat inside the dumplings was temperature-challenged, as if the gyoza had been thrown frozen into the deep fryer.
The "triple s" sushi roll kept us in our seats, however. Sticky vinegared rice and seaweed were rolled with raw salmon, crisp salmon skin, and salty salmon roe, then sliced into eight pieces. The ingredients played off each other with a delightful textural contrast, and a candy-colored eel sauce united them. And if the sushi roll, chosen from more than two dozen options, was the initial glue keeping our butts to the booth, then the appetizer of sauteed chicken livers was the nail in the tushy. A dozen or so chicken livers were pan-fried in ginger-garlic sauce, which was so tasty my father-in-law was licking spilled drops of it off the table. (When I told him that I'd report him if he kept doing it, he looked at me defiantly and said, "I don't care. That's how good it is.") Caramelized on the edges, the plump livers were mild and sweet, a surprise to the sushi-jaded palate.
Complete dinners of cooked fare are served with mild miso soup, spiked with tidbits of tofu, and iceberg lettuce and red cabbage salad with a too-potent carrot-ginger dressing. The pair almost negates the need for appetizers, facilitating turnover of customers -- many diners like to order main courses only. And the staff served the soup-and-salad course promptly, which was a pleasure, but in the end that promptness only pointed out the length of time it took to get the entrees on the table. No matter. Once they arrived after a 40-minute wait, we forgave all. Chicken yaki niku was an excellent stir-fry, tender bites of white meat chicken sauteed in a gingery sauce with cabbage, zucchini, carrots, and a sprinkle of white sesame seeds. Steamed white rice, served in an individual-size bowl on the side, soaked up the aromatic sauce.
Like chicken livers, chicken tempura was a bit unusual to see in a Japanese restaurant; usually only shrimp and vegetables are prepared in this way. At Yama, the combination tempura, which encompasses chicken, shrimp, surimi crab stick, and vegetables, was clearly the way to go. The poultry was the star of the plate, juicy sections coated with a deep-fried rice flour batter so flaky it looked like Corn Flakes had been incorporated. We were disappointed in the pair of shrimp, which was really one shrimp sliced in two to make it look like more, but the vegetables were fresh and greaseless. I've rarely had such expertly prepared tempura.
Sushi mavens know, however, that the only way to truly rate a Japanese restaurant is to sample the raw goods. Yama's chirashi, a layer of sesame seed and seaweed-dotted rice topped with thick slabs of fish, was ideal. The tuna, salmon, and mackerel were all wonderfully succulent, the colors translucent but true. Several unexpected treats included a mound of tobiko, or flying fish caviar, buttery cooked eel, two rounds of dolphin slightly seared on the edges, and several pieces of moist white tuna, sushi's latest fad.
Sushi and its relatives have a reputation for being nonfattening, though anything in enough quantity will put weight on you. That being said, no one should feel guilty for washing down the fish and rice with a cool Kirin beer or indulging in the sumptuous bananas tempura for dessert. Presented like a sundae with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream on top, the halved bananas were dipped in tempura batter and fried. The Old Schoolhouse Bread Company may be right across the street, but the only overflow it's likely to get from Yama is a coffee crowd. Ditto the other surrounding restaurants. Yama might initially attract customers by virtue of having open seats during season in a highly populated area. But it wins loyalty by keeping the tables filled -- with intensely fresh fish and superior tempura. Botanical gardens and two-hour waits can't compete.
Yama. 44 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-266-9929. Lunch Monday to Friday 12 to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m.
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Tempura ice cream