I really want Yuzen to be a success. They just opened on the South End of Mercer Island a few weeks ago, filling a sorely-needed hole in the selection of local restaurants. Like a zen koan, it's beautiful and brilliant, but will leave you disappointed if you don't expend the effort to understand the point of it all. [see comments below]
It's authentic -- really authentic, like a hip new restaurant in Shibuya or Harajuku, not one of those stodgy places that tries to be every American's idea of what a Japanese restaurant should be. You notice this when you walk in: they play Japanese pop music instead of some endless koto muzak. There are specials posted in front, though not plastic models like most Americans expect -- but printed in flourescent colors like you'd see in a real place.
They serve freshly brewed tea without needing to ask. I actually prefer when it comes in a pot you can pour yourself, but that would never happen in Japan. The menu is bilingual, of course, but you get the feeling that the English is there to appeal to Japanese yuppies who want to pretend they're internationally savvy, instead of the other way around. A nice, modern display of sakes is next to the sushi bar, laid out for tasting, just like you'd see in a fresh new restaurant in a hip neighborhood of Tokyo or Yokohama.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid the realism is going to be too much for most Mercer Islanders. The menu is a little pricey ($9 was the cheapest lunch, for a chicken udon -- figure closer to $14 for most lunch sets). I don't mind the prices for such a cheery, clean place, but too many South Island tightwads are going to look at that and wonder why it costs more than one of those Korean-run all-you-can-eat sushi buffets. People here are not going to appreciate the subtle authenticity.
It's tough to bring kids here too. There is no "kids menu" with cheeseburgers or mac-and-cheese cop-out food for parents who've given up. We ordered a regular yakisoba that we split among the two younger kids, and our oldest (a 9-year-old) had the tempura lunch. It was all yummy and healthy, but again, probably a bit more authentic than most people could handle. Our kids are used to more soggy home-cooked yakisoba, so they complained that it was too "crunchy".
I had an excellent tempura udon. I prefer slightly more of a thick flavor, but I know that real Japanese like the milder version served here. There was karashi, though, and the tare was perfect. I'm not sure why they didn't include the oroshi-daikon with the tempura, but when I asked, it came freshly prepared.
The service was outstanding, which is a shame, because it would have been nice for them to have somebody besides us to serve. We had the place to ourselves for lunch the Saturday we visited.
Here's what they can do to make it more appealing to people like me:
- Do something for the kids. No, you don't need to add chicken fingers, but at least offer half-portion tempura or donburis. How about coloring books with Japanese characters?
- Expand the menu. I think they're mostly going after sushi lovers, and there is a reasonable fresh-made selection, but I do wish they had some ippin-ryouri or something. They put organic tofu in the miso for crying out loud, you'd think they could offer some hiya- yakko.
- My biggest suggestion is to offer something seasonal, like oden.
I do hope they make some adjustments. Most of my non-Japanese friends won't appreciate the funky realism and, sadly, will dismiss it as an overpriced imitation of "real Japanese food" -- which couldn't be further from the truth.