The word "grilling" conjures images of burgers and hot dogs, steak and chicken. I think of sunny days, picnic tables, cold beverages and the unmistakable aroma of charred meat, but I was mostly unfamiliar with yakitori. The Japanese-style grilling involves skewering meat and, like American-style grilling, cooking it over hot coals.
Yakitori Sushi House offers 37 types of skewers ($2.75-$5.95), from traditional chicken to beef tongue, quail egg and vegetable. The restaurant's menu also boasts more than 40 specialty sushi rolls ($8.95-$17.95), sizzling rice platters, katsu (battered and deep-fried chicken or pork), donburi (eggs, vegetables and meat served over rice) and noodles.
Located in the U-Med district near East Tudor Road and Wright Street, the restaurant has an unassuming strip-mall appearance that belies an interior that is clean, cozy and well appointed.
I wandered in for lunch on a recent Monday, craving sushi and eager to familiarize myself with yakitori. The dining area was well populated with hungry patrons but not overly busy. Initial service was swift and attentive, and I had a glass of water and a menu in no time.
I scanned the menu, which had useful descriptions where necessary -- a rarity among the typically dense menu offerings at many Asian restaurants in town. I eventually decided on a simple California roll ($8.95) with sesame seeds. I was a bit overwhelmed by the yakitori offerings, but the waitress made my mind up for me when she recommended the lamb chop ($5.95). "It's the bomb," she enthused.
My California roll was out in short order. It was what you'd expect -- nothing more, nothing less. A step above grocery store sushi and more or less on par with most restaurants in town -- average at best but totally serviceable.
The lamb chop, on the other hand, was delicious. Tender, mild-tasting meat was infused with a black-pepper flavor that was unusual and wonderful. It was the high point of the meal and definitely something I would order again.
I returned a few days later for dinner with my husband, excited to introduce him to yakitori.
We decided to make a night of it and order some beer and wine. I was pleased that the wine menu offered options beyond merlot and chardonnay and opted for a glass of sauvignon blanc ($7). My husband was impressed with the beer menu, which, along with the usual offerings (Coors, Budweiser, etc.), boasted some unique Asian imports. He selected a Hitachino Nest white ale ($8).
We split an Izakaya sushi roll ($14.95) and an order of the bacon-wrapped scallops ($4.95). The flavors of the sushi worked well, with a good mix of heat from the spicy tuna, creaminess from the avocado and cream cheese, and sweetness from the unagi. The textures, on the other hand, fell flat. A heavy hand with sauces -- including a mayonnaise-based sauce and a viscous, sweet, soy-based sauce -- rendered the pieces mushy.
The yakitori was again a winner, with tender scallops enveloped in crispy, smoky bacon. One of the three scallops was slightly underdone, but overall the dish worked well and seemed a bargain at less than $5.
Service was good throughout the meal but inexplicably fell off toward the end, and we ended up waiting a while for the bill.
Still, the wait staff overall seemed eager to provide recommendations and answer questions, so inexperienced diners need not be intimidated if they aren't familiar with Japanese grilling. Omnivores and vegetarians alike should find something to please their palates.
By Carly Horton Stuart
Daily News correspondent