Yumeya1246 N Coast Highway 101Encinitas 760-633-4288
Toward the end of our dinner at Yumeya, my two friends, beaming from the aftereffects of good food and enhanced by a couple drinks, turned to me and declared it their new favorite restaurant. It might be mine, too. I have a soft spot for cozy, neighborhood places, even if I'm just an interloper in the area for a meal.
We walked in on a Saturday night and every table in the tiny room was filled, but Yuka, one of the family members that owns and runs the restaurant (Mom and Dad are in the kitchen) poured us a glass of her grandfather's favorite sake and some Echigo beer and found us three seats at the small sushi bar converted into a communal dining space.
Eating at a bar is, of course, commonplace in Japanese restaurants, but I wish that other types of restaurants would employ it as well, for the connection it creates between you, the person serving or cooking your food and the people who are eating around you.
Yumeya serves ippin ryori, or small à la carte plates akin to tapas, that vary with the seasons. It's the kind of menu that's suited perfectly to someone with a bit of food-attention-deficit disorder; a bite or two of one dish and then on to the next flavor. Most of the items are traditional, though the restaurant does incorporate a few unconventional elements, offering brown rice sushi rolls and a reggae soundtrack.
We started off with our first round of tastes, a cucumber and seaweed salad in a brown-rice vinaigrette that perked up our palate and clean-tasting slices of albacore carpaccio, each topped with a dot of siracha sauce. Next came takoyaki, the best version I've tried, molten-centered savory fritters that each hide a treasure of octopus at its core and fried discs of sweet potato, soft and warm, with a mayonnaise dipping sauce flavored with ume, an Asian plum.
The restaurant's back wall is lined with sake bottles, and the sake menu is pages long, so we asked Katsu, another family member, to help us choose a few to sample. He put together two sake flights and gave us a little sake education along the way. Sake is rated according to how thoroughly the rice grain is milled before the sakes are brewed, so super-premium sakes, called junmai daiginjo, are dryer and more delicate tasting while sakes that have a heavier rice flavor are made from less-milled rice.
The selections he brought ran the gamut, and he was patient to explain the origin and characteristics of every sake before we each took a sip. Each sake glass was more beautiful than the next, some sitting on squat, cobalt-blue bases, some resembling doll teacups made of thin glass and others shaped like mini champagne glasses, tinted pink.
My inner girl was in pretty-things heaven. My favorite sake turned out to be ginyu shizuku, a crisp, smooth and slightly floral variety, and Katsu kindly wrote down both the Romanized and Japanese spelling of the name so I'd be able to find it again. He also made the perfectly constructed, miniature origami paper cranes that decorated our place settings. We were tempted to take them home but decided against it, to spare him from having to make three new ones.
Ready for another round of food, we ordered potato croquettes, filled with curried vegetables and perfectly fried with a crunchy panko crumb shell, and baked bay scallops with shimeji mushrooms. The scallops were pencil-eraser-size and scarce, but the mushrooms were delicious, meaty-textured and slightly briny. The kurobuta pork sausage, homemade by the family's friend, was sold out, so we instead got thin and tender slices of pork in a ginger teriyaki and a deliciously rich, miso-marinated black cod. I'd heard that the udon noodles here were homemade, so we finished with some tempura udon. The tempura was great, but the noodles were astonishing. These were not the mushy things I'm used to but have a nice chewy pull and consistency.
With dessert, a wiggly square of almond tofu in lemon honey syrup, we each ordered one more glass of sake, which Yuka poured into a glass set into a saucer. She purposely poured so that the sake overflowed, filling the saucer below, and told us that this is a customary gesture of hospitality and respect. For good luck, we must first drink without picking up the cup, so we all leaned down to take a sip and felt honored.