Izakaya Japas & Sake
Class-act cocktails and diverse sharing plates, but not the sushi we're searching for
What's the story with Izakaya Japas & Sake?
Probably the most common query we receive via ATF Answers – our Insiders-only direct line to advice on eating out – is some variation on where's the best place to get great Japanese food in Dublin. Sadly, friends, we’re largely as bereft as you: despite its capital status, Dublin has lagged behind both Galway (with Wa Sushi) and Cork (with Miyazaki and the Michelin-starred Ichigo Ichie) for far too long, with only a handful of passable options studded around the city.
The recent arrival of Matsukawa has thankfully (finally!) set a new Dublin bar, but between the €90 price tag and its being booked out clean through to the end of the year, it’s not much help to the casual diner looking for a sushi fix on short notice. So off we went to size up Yamamori Izakaya Japas & Sake after hearing increasingly positive grunts around town, and letting ATF Insiders pick our next review. It's one of the longstanding local chain mini-empire of outlets, open on George’s Street and in recent years pushing itself more and more as a traditional take on the casual Japanese sake and snacks bar.
Where should we sit?
The Victorian building’s high ceilings and a whole host of nooks and crannies give Izakaya a cavernous feeling that, even if the place is packed to bursting, lets its little corners feel nicely intimate. The sectioned bar seats are just a little too poky for our tastes but otherwise you can’t go far wrong from the main dining space spread with leather-backed booths and high tables and a window-side area with prime people-watching potential onto George’s Street. There’s also a downstairs dining room that was empty on our Friday night visit – it’s probably kept aside for brunch spillovers.
What did you eat?
Traditional izakayas are usually just as much, maybe more, about the drinking as the eating, so options here are broadly pretty simple, broken into sections of sashimi, nigiri, sushi platters, chef’s specials, and “Japas” – Japanese tapas. The vibe is very casual, with every opportunity to order a few dishes to start, and dip back in as and when it takes your fancy. We started with (complimentary – it’s the little things) edamame, fresh and firm beans in coarse-grain salted pods: the vigorous steam rising from the bowl is a good promise that things will be coming out fast and furious.
We skipped past sashimi and went straight in with three nigiri, all served in prettily-plated pairs topped with edible flowers and paired, as per, with a ribbon of ginger and blob of wasabi – these are plates that look the part. The spiced hamachi was a solid start, the mild fatty fish given a gentle kick with duelling sauces of togarashi-based shichimi and citrusy-soy tataki: we might have preferred a more assertive spice, but it’s a matter of taste.
Unagi foie gras was always going to need to be tried, roasted slivers of eel topped with a torched smear of liver paté. The slightly bitter brûlée treatment brings an interesting taste and texture to a bite that’s skirting excess richness with the butteriness of both meats – the combo makes for an off-beat interlude, if never quite the showstopper we might have hoped on first sight.
The otoro – or bluefin tuna belly, among the most prized of sushi fish cuts – kept things suitably simple with a little smear of wasabi mayo, and while the marbled meat’s saltwater taste attested a freshness, we’ve had substantially better iterations of this elsewhere (not least just recently in Matsukawa). At €15.50 for the plate, this one’s a bit of a letdown.
On the level of fundamentals across the three nigiri, there are a few tell-tale drawbacks that hold Izakaya back from being the answer we wish we could give to everyone’s Dublin sushi woes. We found the rice fine but less well seasoned than you should be getting in top-tier sushi rice, while the less said about the grainy, over-processed wasabi paste the better – steer clear.
Happily the rest of the menu skewed to a slightly higher standard, with our venture into the chef’s specials a particular standout. These are all norimaki with presentation a major focus, and the ebi dragon we opted for definitely looks the part with plump, juicy katsu prawn wrapped in rice and overlain with thin-sliced avocado, wasabi mayo and capelin roe. You’ll be offered a choice of black or white rice; the black brings a delicate nuttiness that plays well with the sweetness of the prawn and saltiness of the roe.
Onward to the Japas options, and we kicked off with takoyaki, the popular Osakan octopus ball snack. There’s good contrast here between the crisp fried exterior and the gooey pancake batter innards studded with chewy diced octopus, but the over-enthusiastic sprinkling of bonito flakes on top slightly dulled the flavour of the sour-sweet tonkatsu sauce. It’s not a bad dish, but there are others around town (hello Kakilang) doing it better.
Gyoza options hadn’t exactly gotten us excited – next to the nigiri, a lot of the Japas menu reads as pretty standard fare – but we gave the yasai option a go for good measure. They came out bearing the tell-tale burnt-bottom signs of a proper pan-frying, and while these crisp undersides give just the right crack as you bite in, the veggie filling is a dud of soggy spinach and soft squash. We’d pass on these.
We were on firmer ground with the potato korokke, croquette-style breaded discs of creamy mash with a spot-on golden crust and just the right sprinkling of salt – this is the kind of side snack plate the whole table can agree on. Mileage may vary with the tonkatsu sauce on the side; while it’s flavourful in its own right, we felt these played better with a wasabi mayo.
Agedahi nasu – or deep-fried aubergine – arrived in a still-searing pot with the wafting air of dashi broth making its way across the table. The traditional version of this dish uses a Japanese species of aubergine with thinner, more absorbent skins – here, with the more familiar, fatter form of the fruit, the skin still feels slightly rubbery. Thinner slices might have helped. We can’t fault the flavour though, with the scored flesh hiding rich pockets of dashi umami.
The seared skin of the 'sea bass & kuro ninniku' is a sight to behold and has the flavour to match: the fish has been cooked in a black garlic butter that gives it a deep, rich, bitter-sweet intensity that’s a joy to savour. Beneath the charred skin, the flesh is soft and succulent with all the buttery goodness it’s known for. This is a standout.
Sides of steamed rice are solid, with a varied texture from tempura flakes and sesame seeds keeping it interesting, but given how broadly sauce-free the dishes at Izakaya are, this is one you could easily go without – particularly if you’ve already gone down the norimaki route. With a deeper and nuttier flavour, the black is probably the way to go if you're just looking to get a fix of carbs.
What about drinks?
Sake is a specialty here with several varieties on the menu, but we’d had a tip that the cocktails are where it’s really at – we’re happy to report it was on the money.
The complimentary notes of the Fashioned Brandy and Japanese Old Fashioned highlight the impact of little touches, with the former’s black walnut bitters bringing an earthiness against the apple overtones of the Nikka Days whiskey in the latter. The Toki sour was a knockout, a fresh and sour-sweet mix of Suntory whisky, plum sake, lemongrass syrup and plum bitters topped with a sprinkle of matcha – we loved it.
How was the service?
Staff are exceptionally friendly and all over the menu – give them your preferences and they’ll give you a very knowing helping hand. Dishes come quick but not overwhelmingly so, and there’s a clear rhythm to the way they'll roll out the next stages according to what you've ordered. The layout of the space can mean you’re waiting a little longer than you’d like to get some attention if you find yourself tucked away in a corner, but service is sharp once you have caught an eye.
What was the damage?
For a just-right share of food and those rock-solid cocktails, it came to just shy of €70 a head for three of us – that includes a 12.5% service charge added on automatically, something usually only seen in bigger groups. It’s not wildly out of step with expectations in Dublin these days, but it does put Izakaya on a price par with many better options out there.
A recently-added brunch menu is much better value, with €35 four-serving cocktail pitchers and a choice of five Japas for €45 (albeit from a much slimmed-down menu) meaning you could eat and drink well for closer to €40 before service – it runs from 1pm to 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
What's the verdict?
A great place to get sushi it ain’t, but Yamamori Izakaya’s class-act cocktails and diverse selection of sharing plates, never mind its central location and surplus of space, make it a solid choice for group dining. There’s plenty here to suit most dietary needs, and a just-right blend of mainstream and more adventurous choices – if you’re struggling to keep a mixed crowd happy, this might just be the answer for you.