What’s the best Japanese restaurant in Dallas? Former Japan resident Katie Aspen on Yutaka and Sharaku

I’m passionately, madly in love with Japanse cuisine. As someone who lived and taught in Japan for several years, I can tell you that, at first, I thought Japanese food was boring.  Six months after immersing myself in the culture and cuisine of Japan, I fell in love with all things umami, that mysterious “fifth taste,” and the subtle nuances of flavor that distinguish Japanese cooking from the strong, bold flavors of San Francisco that I had grown accustomed to.

Now that I live in Dallas, I’m often asked by friends and clients which Japanese restaurants I like best. In my first post for the Hatch, I’ll take you to one of my favorites: Yutaka Sushi Bistro and Sharaku Sake Lounge and Izakaya, in Uptown.

Yutaka Yamato is chef and owner of both Yutaka and Sharaku, two restaurants with different menus and kitchens that sit a couple of doors down from each other. You’re probably familiar with sushi, but maybe not an izakaya.

An izakaya is typically a casual dining restaurant where you eat small plates and have drinks with your buds.  Yamato-san (that’s how you respectfully address a man) has an impressive sake list that includes the “Red Heron,” a delicious namesake only sold in the U.S. at Sharaku.  Namazake is unpasteurized sake, so it contains the healthy probiotic bacteria and yeast that are removed during heat pasteurization.  Those probiotics give the namesake a rich, floral flavor unlike any other sake.  At Yutaka, Yamato-san offers flights of sake, so you can  taste several different types of sake, from simple junmai to gingo, daiginjo, nigori and namazake.  If you aren’t too keen on sake, don’t fret.  Yamato-san has a small but nice selection of red and white wines by the glass or bottle.

As soon as I walked in the door at Sharaku, I smiled.  I felt like I was back in Japan.   It felt so much like a Japanese izakaya that I was expecting them to all scream “Shai Mise Mise” (welcome to my shop).  Ok, I definitely miss the Japanese greeting, but I don’t miss the cigarette smoke which fills most restaurants in Japan.   Sharaku’s small, dimly lighted room feels rustic but cozy. A Japanese man behind the bar hovers over a charcoal grill with intense concentration.  The friendly staff scurries around, busily pouring beer while delivering food the whole time with a smile.  They have a saying in Japan: “Service and Smiles are free.”

Sharaku’s menu consists of a few small plates, sushi, kushiyaki (grilled items), kushiage (breaded, fried items) and shabu shabu (hot pots of broth in which you cook meats).  On a recent visit, the first course I ordered epitomized the perfect Japanese dish: Asian greens with black sesame sauce.  I could picture Yutaka picking out the finest greens, stacking them meticulously into a volcanic shape then drizzling black sesame sauce over the greens with exact precision.  The greens were refreshingly crisp and covered in what reminded me of a subtle peanut butter sauce.  The dish was clean, simple, delicious and sure to make your vegan friends very happy!

A bacon-wrapped asparagus kushiyaki was perfect (grilled asparagus and smokey bacon fat make a perfect marriage).   I was a little disappointed by the bacon wrapped scallops, not because of their quality but because of the small size.  For kushiage, also known as kushikatsu or panko fried skewers, Sharaku’s shiitake or oyster mushroom version is also a nice choice  The mushrooms are moist in the center with a lovely panko fried crust.  They look rich and heavy but they are surprisingly quite light and delicate.

In Japan, it’s common to finish dinner with sushi at the end of your izakaya experience.  Whether yellow tail or uni, Yutaka and Sharaku are known to have the highest quality raw fish in town.   What makes a perfect piece of sushi?  The rice must be made with care– neither too soft nor undercooked–and must have a nice flavor of kelp.  The fish has to be supremely fresh and should never smell fishy.  Finally, the fish must be cut precisely so that it covers the entire top surface of the rice exactly, training off the end of the rice like a fish tail.  The sushi at Sharaku (and Yutaka) are the best I have eaten in Dallas.

Overall, I would highly recommend Sharaku Izakaya.   It brought back many fond memories I had eating and drinking my way through Japan. If you’re new to Japanese food, Sharaku is an ideal place to start your exploration.

Sharaku Sake Lounge, 2633 McKinney Avenue  Dallas, (214) 999-1330

Katie Aspen is a residential Realtor in Dallas.