Tapas — those little plates of food that can be mixed and matched into an entire meal — do not belong exclusively to the Spanish. The Japanese have them, too. They're called tsumami, which the menu at Yoyo defines as “small dishes of food to accompany cocktails.” Some nuance disappears in translating the idea from one culture to another, because in America “cocktails” too often means getting smashed, and tsumami, as presented by Yoyo, are not just foods to get drunk by, like buffalo wings or a plate of nachos. Each dish is a little jewel that imaginatively — and deliciously — joins ingredients and techniques in an artful presentation. Eating the dishes is almost like desecrating them, but it's worth it, because they taste so good.
Yoyo occupies the space (in the Miyako Hotel) vacated by Elka when that “definitive seafood” restaurant closed this year. The surrounding neighborhood, Japantown, is an odd place for a stylish eatery. The development is stale and sterile, an unlovely urban-renewal jumble of concrete and steel and glass, like a housing project. The restaurant is tantalizingly close to the Upper Fillmore and Pacific Heights, yet it seems to be in a world of its own.
Inside, Yoyo radiates a subdued warmth. Folding screens of frosted glass panes struck me as Japanese, but my friend Jacques (a designer) said “definitely European” when I asked him about the general style. We were seated at a large round table a level below the entrance and bar, in comfortable chairs that looked like they'd been salvaged from a log cabin. (“Definitely Elka,” said Jacques' friend Tim.)
Yoyo offers two menus: one tsumami, the other bistro. Our party had eaten sparingly at lunch, so there was a great flurry of ordering when the waiter appeared. A big advantage of small dishes: They cost relatively little — and even less if you order them in “towers” (groups of four or six, any combination). Our tower of six ($21) was actually served in a wooden tower that resembled a spice rack.
The only tsumami course that didn't belong in the rack was also the worst: lemongrass consomme with an oyster and a dollop of caviar ($3). The consomme tasted of chicken rather than lemongrass, and even the chicken flavor was overwhelmed by the fishiness of the oyster and caviar, as if the briny liquid had been pumped out of the hold of a trawler. It was served in a shot glass and was mercifully gone in one brave gulp.
Of the other five tsumami, two were exceptional. The duck confit ($4), on its bed of lentils, was a French dish, perfectly prepared. The skin of the duck leg was nicely crisped, and the moist meat fell off the bone. The lentils themselves were cooked al dente, and their dark meatiness matched well with the duck's.
Ginger pickled salmon ($4.50) sported a cap of wasabi creme fraiche, a sour-creamy-pungent concoction that added a note of seriousness to what could have been the cloying sweetness of the rest of the dish. Yoyo's kitchen has a better sense than most of balance and harmony among flavors, and — even more important — the staff executes its dishes according to their original design, with the flavors in sharp focus.
The consensus winner among the first courses — fresh and smoked salmon cake ($7) — came from the bistro menu. We ate it and immediately ordered another. The cake was crusty outside and nicely textured within (not mealy, as can happen from overworking the fish). The taste of the salmon was clear but not ponderous, and it was cut by the wasabi creme fraiche and the sweet-sharp signature of pickled ginger, which, with romaine lettuce, made up the salad bed on which the cake was served.
The salmon cake barely beat out the warm apple-and-Roquefort salad ($7), another example of the kitchen's understanding of symmetry. Roquefort is powerfully acrid, but the apples brought a sweet-tartness and walnuts added an absorbing richness that soaked up the cheese's excesses. The dressing, a sherry-walnut vinaigrette, was demure and soothing.
Most of the main courses involve seafood. The best of the lot at our table was the night's special, Arctic char ($19), a salmonlike fish with a milder flavor. It was served in a wide, shallow bowl with cilantro pistou and a medley of cherry tomatoes. The pistou was soupy but not oily, and its cilantro twang was muted by another herb (basil, Jacques thought, but we never found out for sure). The dish was true ensemble cooking, in which each flavor spoke in its turn, and none dominated.
The grilled yellowtail ($18) tasted exhilaratingly of its mushroom garnish. The fish was substantial enough to stand up to the mushrooms' autumnal fragrance (which was enhanced by a mushroom vinaigrette), and the smokiness of the grilling added to the dish's dusky warmth. Underneath was a bed of sauteed spinach that was tender with just a lingering hint of crispness.
Roasted Atlantic cod ($17) swam in a chunky ragout of cranberry beans and corn that would have made a formidable stew by itself. Cod is something less than the glamour baby of fish, but this piece was thick like a good steak. The roasting left it flaky-tender but still firm. The ragout was controlled by the mild but persistent taste of the cranberry beans, punctuated from time to time by the sweet juiciness of a corn kernel exploding.
The potato-wrapped tuna ($18) arrived as a dignified cylinder whose outer layer consisted of thin slices of crisp-tender potato. Around the fish was a coarse ratatouille in a fennel coulis. Atop it was a sun-dried tomato tapenade that, despite its summery origins, added a distinctly wintry, sausagelike spin to the flavors.
Yoyo's seafood dishes are as good as any I've ever eaten. They're imaginative without being overwrought, seasonal without being narrow. Every aspect of the food seemed to be precise and well thought-out yet still supple — the telltale sign of the human touch, exact without being mechanical. We didn't try the cocktails, but then you can get cocktails just about anywhere. There aren't many places where you can get food as terrific as Yoyo's.
Yoyo Tsumami Bistro, 1611 Post, S.F., 922-7788. Open daily 6:30-11 a.m.; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5:30-10 p.m.