Discover some of the area’s most authentic and accomplished Japanese cuisine at this Manayunk BYOB
by Brian Freedman

The Freedman family is a rather short lot—at five-foot-seven, I’m the tallest member of my immediate family—and as a result I disdain restaurant or bar seating that’s placed too high. I’ve been known to walk out of even the nicest watering holes immediately after sitting down at the bar if the stools are too low. Reason is, they would necessitate me to assume an awkward posture, scrunching up my right shoulder every time I needed to take a sip of my Old Fashioned or Gibson.

But that’s not why I felt a bolt of joy course through my body upon walking into Yanako, the serene, elegant Japanese newcomer from the team behind popular Chabaa Thai Bistro in Manayunk. No, that joy was a result of the chabudai off to the right, one of those short tables fairly typical of traditional Japanese dining, tucked into a little private alcove. I was excited, rather, for two reasons: It would give us a modicum of separation from the rest of the dining room, despite the fact that it was, indeed, open sided; and the seats were floor height, which meant my 2-year-old daughter would be able to sit there with us without the risk of her fidgeting and squirming resulting in her falling from a high chair.

Good omens abounded from the very beginning. And happily, they were borne out throughout the entirety of the dining experience.

Shoes removed and slippers donned, we settled in for what would turn out to be one of the more accomplished Japanese meals I’ve experienced in several months. This is a restaurant that, despite its location in the heart of Manayunk’s main drag, offers enough opportunities for exploration and experimentation to keep things very interesting indeed.

Takoyaki were texturally perfect, the innards of those delicately cooked orbs almost soufflé-like, with heartier knobs of octopus tucked away throughout. Generous shavings of bonito and a deeply savory Japanese aioli, as well as an additional hit of Worcestershire and shredded seaweed, all conspired to create a series of nibbles that cumulatively grew more and more umami-rich and rewarding. Pickled red ginger worked to slice through it all, as did sips of the Pinot Gris that I brought along. This is a nearly perfect way to start a meal, with just enough challenge for the uninitiated to pique the interest of everyone at the table.

Tempura udon, a more familiar dish to be sure, still managed to surprise with the impeccable wheat-flour noodles that had absorbed the fabulously rich broth of dashi, mirin and soy sauce. I kept on going back to that bowlful, marveling at how its character shifted and evolved as its temperature changed. (The accompanying tempura shrimp were excellent, too.) Albacore ponzu, on the other hand, took a familiar fish and upped its ante considerably. Much-maligned white tuna was sliced thin, barely charred around the edges, and downright delicious when pulled through its soy-citrus vinaigrette. The addition of scallions, ginger and grated white radish lent a well-calibrated crunch, and the result of all this was a dish that I’d more than happily come back for.

The lion’s share of the menu, however, is dedicated to sushi and rolls, both of which showcased a kitchen confident enough to play around with unexpected combinations but self-assured enough to not feel the need to pile on ingredient after ingredient. The “Younger Sister” roll leveraged the cooling effects of avocado and cucumber to accompany the more deeply savory notes of tuna and salmon. Gently spicy, snap-between-the-teeth wasabi tobiko simply made it fun. Kanpyo roll, whose centerpiece was a house-dried gourd whose sweetness made it infinitely poppable, was a vegetarian option even this avowed omnivore would be happy to order again.

As for the sushi, every piece I tasted was anchored by well-prepared rice, which allowed everything—from the more assertive fishiness of mackerel to the opalescent shimmering of sliced scallop to a decadent cloud of sea urchin—to shine. Of note was the freshwater eel, which too often is merely a vessel for a slick of too-sweet sauce, but here actually possessed an excellent character of its own.

By the end of a recent meal at Yanako, I was thoroughly won over. In a neighborhood that, historically, has not necessarily been known for its surfeit of authentic cuisine—that, at least, has often been my experience—here was yet another example of what I hope will become a shift in Manayunk.

With Yanako in its space, Taqueria Feliz down the street and a number of other standouts either well established or making their mark, Manayunk seems to be in the midst of a dining renaissance. (The recently shuttered Derek’s, on the other hand, had been a favorite of mine and will be sorely missed.) It’s enough to make me want to jump up and cheer, no matter how low my table and chair might be.

4255 Main Street, Philadelphia (Manayunk)

Photography by Jody Robinson