Phnom Penh's uber-in-style Japanese restaurant Yumi is modeled on the traditional 'Izakaya' restaurants found all over Japan. Izakaya is a compound word, loosely translated as "a shop to sit and drink sake." Izakaya restaurants are typically small spaces with a long bar and a handful of tables that serve what could be described as Japanese tapas-style cuisine to go with the core purpose of their being, which is of course drinking.
If you're already thinking that Yumi was destined to be just my kind of place, you are absolutely right. There are many different types or styles of izakaya, usually defined by the food they offer; modern izakaya also proffer a wide variety of beverages from sake to beer, wine, whiskey and other spirits.
Yumi is a well fitted out, minimalist style restaurant with a Zenlike feel to the garden, tucked into a cozy space in BKK 1. Yumi loosely fits into the yakitori-ya category of izakaya, although the selection of dishes is diverse enough and well chosen to give a delightful sampling of Japanese cuisine. The wine list too is small and taut, but offers a quality and diversity of styles and price points that sees the list well suited to the cuisine on offer, (or vice-versa as it should be in an izakaya).
In keeping with the izakaya tradition, my dining partner and I decided to settle on the drinks for the evening first and then match the dishes to the wines, instead of the more conventional food and wine pairing criteria.
If there is a more popular white wine in Cambodia right now than the Anakena Sauvignon Blanc, I mustn't be getting out enough and my ever reliable Khmer partner went straight for it by the glass, (which is her usual practice on such outings when she spies it on a wine list). I selected a rosé to commence with and spied upon a very sexy New World Pinot Noir for later in the meal.
Izakaya cuisine is served on small plates and shared by guests. Our first plates to arrive were a beef sushi roll, beef yakitori skewers and a selection of tempura vegetables, my rosé had just enough body and red fruit character to be complimented by the excellent beef sushi and did not overpower the dish. A more substantial red might have been in order for the beef skewers but with its open-ended bar leading onto the garden, this was a hot night in the Penh that called for well chilled beverages -even in this coolest of trendy places. The light, fluffy tempura coating crispy vegetables was delicious, when matched to the zippy freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc it was sublime but, most of it was rapidly disappearing on the other side of the table.
It is my partner's first experience of such cuisine and already she is planning our next visit –in a few days time.
Our next round of plates consisted of tonkatsu chicken, pumpkin gyoza and steamed bok choi. The Anakena Sauvignon Blanc has a core, almost lush mid-palate of tropical fruits and passion-fruit flavor which is all brought beautifully together by a brace of crisp, refreshing, citrus like acidity. The wine was matched beautifully by the sweet notes of the tantalizing pumpkin gyoza. The bok choi was as it should be, fresh, clean and not overly tannic but again, it was vanishing from the plate faster than I could get a chopstick near it.
The lovely and fruitful Juliet Pinot Noir is from the T'Gallant winery on Victoria, Australia's Mornington Peninsula; with its love heart label and strawberry/cherry medium weight fruit, gentle structure and hints of gaminess and undergrowth it is a delightful wine and well suited to the cuisine. However, a zazen-like groove was washing over me and I'd moved on to chilled, dry, Gekkikan sake to go with the exquisite tonkatsu.
By now, my partner was asking the bar staff if the owner wanted to sell her the place!
Just before I managed to bore her into a coma with tales of my culinary explorations across Tokyo last century, my long-suffering dining partner retrieved the bill and we made our way back into the steamy, chaotic reality of Phnom Penh, the spell had been broken. While it lasted, it had been an enchantingly beautiful dining experience, our own Zen moment and one we both wish to repeat again very soon.