Many years ago, whilst lingering over a mound of perfectly crisp tempura delights, I overheard the lady at the next table comment on how unusual it was to see ‘Japas’ (that’s Japanese Tapas) on a menu. I remember, not only because she pronounced it with a silent J, which still gives me a chuckle to this day, but because it was the night I discovered Yamamori Izakaya.
There is nought as strange as folk, they say, but stellar Japanese food in Ireland can tread on the unusual side as well. Izakaya offers something a little different, which you can gauge even glancing at the menu. With innovative small plates and an ample offering of hand-crafted sushi rolls, again with a hint of flair, there is definitely enough to entice you in the door a second time.
You’ll know the name Yamamori from the outlets dotted on both sides of the bridge, Yammamori Sushi, Noodles and Tengu, but the familiar black fascade takes on a more traditional feel at Izakaya, with hanging lanterns and a Maneki Neko Japanese lucky cat statue beckoning us in the door and into a restaurant which on a Thursday evening is completely full and buzzing.
Taking our seats with a birds-eye people watching view of the George’s Street thoroughfare, we mull over our choices, keen to get stuck into some of the stunning dishes we spy at the tables around us. Izkaya offers an extensive choice of these Japanese tapas, with every kind of tempura under the rising sun from seafood to veggies and plenty of less widely know street food treats like Octopus Balls and rich Okinawa Pork Belly, all of which come in around the €9 mark for hefty sharing portions.
I am a big fan of the Japanese way of eating, a melange of bites, dips and morsels and an even bigger fan of dumplings, so naturally they were the first dish summoned. “Better than China Town in London and on par with Beijing” said Aisling, my trusty authenticity gauge for all things Asian given the amount of stamps on her passport, upon tasting our shared Japa of choice Ebi Gyoza (€9).
Commonly known as pot stickers, I was disappointed that my saintly inclinations had encouraged me to stick to a shared portion – these tender hand crafted parcels were packed with sweet minced prawns and chive, steamed then fried for a hint of caramelisation and crunch and the perfect way to whet our appetites.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a rice fan, which usually curtails my adventurous side on the sushi roll front. In a bid to break out of sashimi monotony and escape my sushi comfort zone, the visually striking and more nutritionally charged addition of black rice in all of Izakaya’s rolls was a revelation to me.
Choosing Unagi Tuna Norimake (€19.95), what arrived was a generous banquet of sticky and sweet eel in kimchee dressing alongside salty wakame, artfully arranged atop a dozen pieces bulging with ruby chunks of fresh tuna. As mouthfuls go, this was a feast for the tastebuds – sweet and salty, sticky and tender, light yet earthy with the addition of black rice, with the richness of tuna still shining through.
I routinely commit the cardinal sushi sin of topping my rolls with pickled ginger rather than reserving it as a palate cleanser, but in this case no accessories were needed – a perfectly formed roll ticking all the boxes and blitzing my sushi cravings – even my beloved wasabi failed to get a look in. My dish was a diva and demanded no backing dancers – the Mariah Carey of sushi.
Across the table, Rainbow Rolls (€19.95) draped in sea bass sashimi and tuna and packed with plump, sweet crayfish drank soy sauce and played with wasabi, making it as vibrant on the palate as on the eye with a sprinkling spike of orange from Masago roe.
Slinky jade slices of avocado also lay across the generous spread bulging with juicy crayfish. I am always a little wary of lobster’s little sister, as the more petite crustacean is so often cooked to rubberiness, but luckily not so here. This was like the California roll we all know with the volume turned up several notches, so despite the sheer size, we cleared the board between us.
It was Espresso Martinis all round for the gaggle of girls next to us, but on our table there was no way I was passing up my favourite Japanese dram, Nikka Whisky.
Shaken up with zingy lemon juice and bitters with a cloud-like egg white foam for cocktail moustache purposes, the Nikka Sours (€10.50) is a new addition to the menu, but one I hope will stick around. I’m normally an Old Fashioned girl, and their take sounded tempting indeed but this was the perfect foil for iron-rich tuna rolls, as well as seriously refreshing on a warm summer’s evening – jackpot.
Aisling opted for a similarly zesty creation, a Mandarin Martini (€11), which again was cleansing cutting across creamy crayfish and avocado. Fantastic on their own and with the delicious dishes we sampled, I could see myself failing to resist the allure of Izakaya’s cocktails the next time I’m passing – Izakaya’s basement bar should expect a return visit in the very near future.
Asian restaurants are rarely known for desserts and I was almost too full to contemplate anything more than a further Nikka Sours, but after spotting a dairy and gluten free Banana Cake (€7.50) with my favourite Irish frozen treat, Nobó, dessert perseverance became imperative.
A beautifully baked warm cinnamon spiked banana bread sat underneath an ample scoop of salted caramel Nobó (coconut milk and avocado-based crack for dairy avoiders) was a triumph – like a child I couldn’t finish my main but somehow managed to overcome fullness adversity to wolf dessert.
Having come in for a few bites and cocktails, we found ourselves lingering and not really wanting to budge, and not just because of the fantastic feast we had devoured – the atmosphere alone makes leaving Izakaya tough. A traditional Japanese Izakaya is casual, fun, atmospheric and the perfect post work venue, and our very own one is just that, with cracking cocktails and a menu that you’ll probably want to eat your way through over several visits.
A word of warning, while there is plenty on offer at Izakaya for a healthy and saintly meal, as most of their Japanese fare is light but vibrantly flavourful, you will need to bring your willpower to resist the cocktails and a prospect of a night on the tiles in the basement post-dinner – saying Sayonara to Izakaya is never easy!
Our bill for a shared starter, two mains, a shared dessert and a cocktail each came to €77.90.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.