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April 2017

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Yama Sushi – Slow Boat or Pleasure Cruise?

It was financial necessity of one Yoshiaki Shiraishi that morphed the traditonal sushi bar from a tiny space with few seats into a novelty production that coincidentally involves food. The owner of a sushi restuarant on the outskirts of Osaka in the 1950s, Shiraishi was going broke paying master sushi chefs during times of slow business, as well as trying to please a customer base who demanded high-quality food. After visiting the Asahi brewery and observing the efficiency of conveyor belts moving beer bottles, he thought he could keep costs down by slowly moving plates of sushi past customers, allowing them to quickly choose and eat without ordering via waitstaff. (At first, Shiraishi also eliminated tables and chairs - an unpopular move he had to rescind.) If the sushi chefs were in the center of the conveyor belt, they could keep an eye on which dishes were most popular and make them up as needed. During slack times, the chefs could make up some of the most popular dishes in advance and be prepared for the next rush.

Fast forward to 1991, when Len-Sun Lai of Milpitas was issued a patent for "Interlinked watercourses for sushi boats," and the sushi floating boat theme restaurant boom was on. It's been good for the sushi business - but how good is it for the food?

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Yama Sushi opened in 2008 in the space vacated by Pellegrini's Brazilian Steakhouse (a victim of the Cypress Street Bridge construction). Though there is table service available, there's no doubt that the floating sushi boats attract most of the attention. There are photo charts around the bar to guide diners through the offerings, as well as pricing guides (match the design of the little plate to the picture on the chart to see what it costs).

Rather than keep careful watch on the chart, it's more interesting to just grab a likely-looking dish from the boat and see if you like it. Though M. de Joie made an attempt to catch the names of these little plates, she was not near a chart and so just grabbed a few plates to try a variety of dishes.

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Those little orange dots: tobiko, or flying fish roe. Not too salty or "fishy," they offer a nice little pop on the tongue. However, the sweet sauce drizzled on the plate tended to mask the delicate taste.

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This vegetable egg roll was not quite as delightful as it could have been, as some of the ingredients had been mixed too far in advance and were on the mushy side.

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M. de Joie enjoyed the surprise of a hot and spicy dish amongst the sushi and sashimi, but her dining companion was put off by the heat packed in these little meatballs. It appeared there was an attempt to add some sort of cooling sauce on the plate (see squiggles of mayonnaise-like goop on plate) but the it didn't disguise the heat.

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This was a generous portion of teriyaki chicken for the price, but the bits were on their way to drying out by the time the boat came by. A last-minute light brushing of sauce before plating could have preserved the moisture.

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After dining at the sushi bar, M. de Joie came back to try an off-the-menu item. Donburi is a lesser-seen dish around Redding, but one worth seeking out. Katsu don - breaded pork strips, mixed with egg and onion and made into an "omelet" on top of rice and topped with shredded carrot and scallion - made a surprisingly light lunch. It was accompanied by excellent miso soup with seaweed and a very good salad of spring mix with delicate miso-ginger dressing.

The floating sushi boats are an interesting way for sushi novices to see if they like it. There are some delicious dishes drifting around, but very often they are covered in honey sauce or a mango sauce. They're visually appealing and the sauce keeps rolls from drying out - but that extra sweetness obliterates the delicate taste of fresh fish. It's as if Disneyland had invented sushi.

It's fun to sit at the sushi bar with a friend and take guesses at what each morsel might be. Most of the food is tasty, and it can be a meal that doesn't break the bank if you order carefully. M. de Joie's one meal ordered off the menu was a delight. But with brightly-colored sauces and over-the-top tastes that resemble the subtle textures and flavors of raw fish about as much as Cheez Whiz resembles Stilton, this is not sushi for the purist. And unless you personally witness the chef slice and roll your sushi, it wasn't made to order. If you get there toward the end of a serving period, that lonely little plate could have been floating around and around for a while. It's tarted up to appeal to a wide audience.

Femme de Joie wouldn't complain if she was cajoled into eating at Yama Sushi, but there are more authentic sushi bars in town.

Yama Sushi, 40 Hartnell Avenue, Redding, CA 96002. Phone 530-223-6868, fax 530-223-6888. Cash & cards; no checks. Open daily 11:30 - 2:30 for lunch, 5:00 PM - 10:00 PM for dinner. Beer, wine, sake. Vegetarian and vegan options. Ample onsite parking. Website at www.yamasushi.net