Yamakiya (山喜屋, or shan xi wu in Chinese) is an authentically Japanese experience. Not in the set-menu artistic Japanese-cuisine way: you won’t find expert sushi chefs here, nor does it aspire to Japanese-style haute cuisine. Yamikiya provides a rustic experience, akin to ‘izakaya’ – Japanese ‘pub’ style food, offering samplings of snacks and rustic dishes designed to complement beer or sake. Think a Japanese version of a Spanish tapas bar and you get the picture.
Our meal kicked off with fresh, raw cabbage: simple, healthy, addictive and an indication of Yamakiya’s commitment to fresh produce. This was followed by the oily but flavorsome teppanyaki-style oriental mushrooms, served on a heavy iron plate. But more was to come, including what at first looked like simple cabbage rolls, but which was a hearty Taiwanese-style okonomiyaki, containing thick hokkien noodles, smoked pork and topped with generous shavings of bonito. And a tabletop burner containing glowing charcoal coals was soon topped with a bowl of bubbling miso soup with generous chunks of salmon and fresh tofu. Tofu was also served as a salad, topped with a mayonnaise style sauce on fresh ice-berg lettuce.
Yamakiya’s specialty is grilled foods. We ordered a sample that included chicken, pork and skewers. Being greedy we ordered additional serves of beef tongue and chicken giblets (although I do admit to passing on the latter). The skewers were expertly grilled, tender and flavorsome. Surprisingly, the stand out choice was the beef tongue: sliced thinly and grilled to perfection, it tasted like sirloin steak. Also nicely done was the grilled fish, whose crackling skin was delicious paired with its tender flesh.
While not a high-brow establishment, Yamakiya still does a decent tricolor sashimi plate, served simply and not tricked up elaborately. But even better is sashimi topped with Korean-style pickles: the daring contrast of colors and flavors complements and does not overpower the delicate white raw fish. Also Korean-influenced was the clay-pot seafood and vegetable rich dish, similar to classic bibimbab but minus beef. Although a bit challenging to tackle (it needs expert mixing), it was a reassuring peasant-style dish that provided the carbohydrate balance to the meal. Less familiar was the deep-fried chicken bones (made from gelatinous ‘parsons noses’). While popular with my Taiwanese friends, I did not reach for second. But then I am not a fan of deep fried food.
Yamakiya has recreated the warm, inviting feeling of a Japanese inn of yesteryear. There is lots of tatami and bamboo, in addition to small Japanese-style gardens and original artwork for sale. There are several seating options from tatami-floor to booths and also normal tables. We opted for a booth, although we were still requested to remove our shoes. A wooden style ‘gong’ hangs over or beside the tables, each one different. The gongs serve a practical as well as artistic purpose: hit on the gong to summon the waitstaff if you want to order more food or drinks.
This restaurant would be perfect for catching up with good friends for a relaxed night out (as we did). It is very popular, especially on weekends, so best to book ahead. We were eating out with friends, who brought along their seven year old daughter. But we didn’t see any other kids, and I am unsure how young children would fit in with all of the hot coals and skewered things on offer.
The menu is in Chinese, although many items have pictures. Prices depend on how many mini-courses you order, but expect to pay under NT$1,000 per person. Yamakiya is at two locations: No 81-1 Chang’an East Road Section 1 (台北市長安東路1段83-1號 Ph: 2571 0248), and No 28, Lane 270, Dunhua South Road Section 1 (台北市大安區敦化南路一段270巷28號, Ph: 2772 3300). I recommend the original, Chang’an venue.