Menuplease: 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Femme de Joie
Femme de Joie's first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.
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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Ron says:

    I Like Yama Sushi..Sure.There are more authentic places around..But they are also more expensive.Which is not why I go to Yama Sushi,But but you can have Fun with it! The Chefs,if I needed anything specifically would make it right up fresh ,and hand it to me,at the bar,and generally there was a interaction I enjoyed,sometimes with people sitting on either side of you,sharing thoughts on what this or that is..or even passing on a sample of thiers.

    The food,yes you have to be careful,And sometimes you see the colorful Jello,go round and round etc..But Overall,It's a great time,I took P~Dub there,on our first date.. and got a wonderful First "fishy" Kiss afterwards..

    So I hope They continue to Serve us here in the greater Reddings,area, I sayTry it you might like it.

  2. Avatar Canda says:

    Yama Sushi is one of our favorite places to go. Between my husband and I, we usually end up with 4-5 plates from the boats, and it makes for a very affordable meal. He loves the hot dragon balls, pictured here in this article, and we both really like the honey shrimp. It's a fun atmosphere, and the chefs are friendly, and often ask if there's anything we would like. If one of our favorites isn't floating around, they make it up and hand it to us right away. I would recommend Yama Sushi for anyone who hasn't tried it, even if you're not a big sushi fan. There are many other dishes, such as salmon or teriyaki chicken, to delight, and watching those little boats float around is just plain fun!

  3. Valerie Ing-Miller Valerie Ing-Miller says:

    I am also a big fan of Yama Sushi, especially the Dragon Balls. I've never been disappointed, and I am a huge fan of their mystery sauces. I have no idea what's in the stuff, but I like it! I realize that I am not a sushi expert, and perhaps it's best that I stay that way…naive, happy, satisfied and a cheap date! It reminds me of an incident about a million years ago when a friend offered me a glass of some very expensive champagne, saying, "Once you try the really good champagne, you'll never go back to the cheap stuff." I declined his offer because up to that point I was happy with the cheap stuff and didn't know what I was missing. To this day I'm still able to appreciate an inexpensive bottle of Cook's.

  4. Avatar Adam Mankoski says:

    I'm also a big Yama fan. And few people know that the chefs will make anything on the boat menu fresh, if you ask. You can also order boat items from the menu if you don't see what you want floating around. So, even if you go during off times, you can still have fresh sushi. They also have a menu of nigiri and sashimi that the chefs will cut fresh.

    I agree that Yama isn't for purists, but it's a fun place to go with friends or kids.

  5. Avatar Barb says:

    Yama is a great place to take kids, and friends. I love that the floating boats encourage slow dining and conversation. One small plate at a time! Yes, I too love Kobe, and others for delicious amazing sushi, but I also love Yama for what it is. It helps to know what the items are that are floating by and how to tell how long they have been out…(hint: smell as it floats by) But you can ALWAYS order anything you want on a boat plate and they happily make it to order! If you don't like to wait, going at prime times guarantees that they will all be fresh, but you might not get it before someone else does!

  6. Avatar Josh says:

    I like Yama, but I like more traditional sushi which is about the fish. Yama is about presentation, presentation, presentation. They put a bunch of fancy sauces on their bad fish. I would much rather eat at Sakura! Much better priced and better quality fish.

  7. Avatar Stephenie says:

    I remember when I was little my parents would take us on a yearly trip to San Francisco. We would stay in a hotel owned by a Japanese family and the entire stay was in authentic Japanese style.

    My father's love of Japanese food came about when he was on a leave in Japan during his tour in the Korean war. He passed that love onto us.

    I love all the food that Yama offers. Thanks Josh for your post because next stop is Sakura!!

  8. Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

    I really like Yama as well. I didn't eat at the harbor but rather at one of the tables, and the service was good and the food fresh. My dining companion ate an ungodly amount of sushi with great pleasure and then all but licked my plate as well when I cried "uncle." I would be happy to return there again.

  9. Avatar kURliZA says:

    Great! love YaMa!

  10. Avatar Lisa Butler says:

    Ms. Femme de Joie – I too have enjoyed a couple of visits to Yama. I ask of you and others that read this — what are the best recommendations for sushi in Redding. I was excited when Yama opened because I heard that they were from the SF and blah blah blah. But whatever is recommended – I would hope they would offer other items. I have an 11 year old son – that I am trying soooo hard to get to try. He is still responding with icky.

    Thanks for your help Ms. Femme de Joie and others that respond to this post

    Lisa Butler

    • Femme de Joie Femme de Joie says:

      Dear Lisa,

      When Femme de Joie was 11 years old, she would have completely rejected sashimi and sushi also. It’s not really a food that sells itself to kids. There’s no Ronald Tekka Maki, no Happy Sushi Meals. It’s one of those weird foods adults like.

      But if you would like to make it less scary and more enticing, try going to a sushi restaurant that has seating right by the prep station (Tokyo Gardens comes to mind, but there are several others that also have this feature.) Go when it isn’t busy. Sit right where you can talk with the sushi chef and see how each roll is prepared.

      Ask your son to articulate what it is he doesn’t like about sushi – is it the idea of eating raw fish? Does he not like the texture? Is he afraid it will be slimy? Try to get him to interact with the person making the sushi rolls and perhaps the chef can suggest something that kids tend to like.

      From there, perhaps try a California roll, or ask that a roll be made with just sushi rice and one or two ingredients you know he likes. Maybe grilled salmon and cream cheese? Or cream cheese and avocado?

      If it doesn’t work, well, it doesn’t work. Eventually he will probably come to enjoy sushi on his own, but everyone has their own preferences and sense of taste. All you can do is introduce him to new foods and hope he will grow to have a wide range of tastes.

      Thanks for commenting,
      Femme de Joie