Sushi restaurants in shopping centers come and go in a blink of the eye. Usually the only one you need to know about is the one in your neighborhood. But the reader was insistent. Not only was the new Yamato Sushi better than the sushi place that was in that location before, but, she told me, it was the very best in the area.
That I can't say, but the small restaurant does have lots of appeal. Its fish is beautifully fresh, and the combination plates of sushi and sashimi (sliced raw fish without the rice) are nicely done, with the most unusual feature, a rectangle of soft white tuna, adding color and textural interest to the salmon pinks and cool reds. Sushi lovers, though, will probably want something more exotic than the California roll that comes with the combos. I could also do without the plastic decorations that it, like many sushi places around here, use; but Yamato's are tasteful as these things go.
Elaborate rolls, designed to appeal to customers who don't eat raw fish, are available, such as the Luara Roll, with crab and soft, ripe avocado inside and a thin wrapping of shrimp around the rice. Shumai, delicate, flower-like Chinese dumplings, will also make non-sushi lovers happy. And Yamato's tuna tataki, seared, dark ruby tuna in a soy-lemon sauce called ponzu, is good enough to tempt customers to try the sushi experience next.
Even though owner Danny Chen is a native of Taiwan, most of the menu is taken up with Japanese dishes - teriyaki, tempura and noodles as well as sushi. But don't overlook the section labeled "Asia Cook." It's short, with a strong Thai influence, and it's the main reason I would go here rather than somewhere else.
The white meat chicken in Red Curry Chicken is tossed with fresh vegetables - carrots, green beans, red peppers and mushrooms - cooked tender crisp, then lightly coated with a fiery but flavorful curry sauce. The kitchen knows better than to drown the ingredients.
Grill Beef Rib is better than it sounds. On one side of the plate are charred, meaty pieces of rib, on the other beautifully green vegetables. Both dishes look as fine as they taste, which is pretty darn good.
I'm not sure why the Crispy Eggplant is an Asia Cook rather than a tempura entree. It's a reliable indication that the tempura is worth ordering here. The rounds of eggplant come out soft and hot, with little crisp, gold beads of tempura batter and almost no grease. Ask for its sweet and sour sauce on the side; less is more in this case.
Dinners are preceded by a delicate miso soup, filled with a tiny dice of tofu and a bit of greenery - a small illustration of the kitchen's artistry. They end with the standard desserts of Japanese restaurants: green tea and red bean ice cream or mochi (ice cream in rice cake dough), or Thai sticky rice with mango.
Yamato's atmosphere, I have to say, doesn't set it apart from shopping center sushi places. It's another of those small, rather narrow dining rooms with rows of tables and the sushi bar in back. What it lacks in cutting-edge style, it makes up for with cheerful warmth. The people who staff the place - mostly Chen family members - are lovely, with the kind of personal attention that inspires you to return.
Yamato Sushi is almost a find. The food is good and the staff is great. There's one thing, though, that I'm sure is hurting business. It doesn't have a liquor license, although customers are, of course, welcome to bring their own bottle.
51 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium. 410-560-0024. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)