"It's very blue," a friend whispers as we approach the podium at the new Yin Yankee.
He's right. From the shirts worn by the young waiters to the tabletops that bring to mind ocean waves -- they're both curvy and aquamarine -- nearly every detail in the open dining room is some shade of blue. SpongeBob SquarePants would feel very much at home in what suggests an underwater playground.
Perhaps you're familar with the concept. There's a Yin Yankee in Annapolis, too. Both restaurants serve a menu that aims to bridge East and West, and both include a sushi bar -- real estate that in the Bethesda location is best unexplored. With a blindfold on, I'd be unable to tell the raw tuna from the yellowtail: The fish, cut into outsize slices, are that bland. And their compact supports of rice, equally devoid of flavor, more closely resemble pucks than pillows.
It gets better. Tomato soup is sweet with coconut milk and sassy with lime juice; a jolt of hot chili sauce in the mix, in which a few grilled shrimp are bobbing, makes for some exciting sips. Lamb chops are nicely rosy and well served by sweet potatoes infused with goat cheese. But a spring roll fattened with dull shredded duck reminds me that the kitchen, under the helm of chef Jerry Trice, still needs time to settle in. The opening chef at Yin Yankee in Annapolis, Trice, 38, has also put in time at the late Red Sage and Sam & Harry's, among other area restaurants.
Come to think of it, the restaurant is young in several ways. With its eye on a certain demographic, Yin Yankee set out a communal table and employs a resident DJ, who spins music after 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. And whoever wrote the script can't resist the urge to joke around. Like wine lists that reach out to drinkers through catchy headings, the food menu here is divided into supposedly helpful categories that include "Liquids," "Steamed" items, "Noodly" fare and "Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy" entrees, such as hanger steak and duck breast. I'm stumped, however, when it comes to "C Food," a collection of dishes that embraces a "crabchop."
A signature at the original Yin Yankee, that crabchop is basically a crab cake made crisp with panko and threaded on a stick of sugar cane. I like the entree's assertive seasoning of lemon zest, Dijon mustard and serrano chili peppers but could do without the wasabi mashed potatoes, as dated a fashion as feathered hair.
Eventually it dawns on me. "C Food," of course, is seafood.
--Tom Sietsema (May 16, 2007)
Raucus Yin Yankee Overdoes It
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
There's not much wrong with Bethesda's Yin Yankee that a remedial course in seasoning and a good pair of earplugs wouldn't help.
This boisterous, well-intentioned but frequently frustrating offshoot of a quirky Annapolis cafe is stronger on concept than concrete execution. It works awfully hard at its humor and its hipness: Executive chef Jerry Trice is the "gastronaut" and his style is "seasonally twisted eccentric cuisine"; the fish dishes are listed as " 'C' Food" and the red meats are "Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy" (Who knew?). You have "DJ dim sum" (i.e., dumplings du jour). The "funky maki" have names such as "Rodan" (a monster coconut shrimp tempura, avocado, mango and carrot roll) or "Stop, Drop & Roll" (shrimp tempura with spicy guacamole, faux crab and cucumber) and come in 10-slice portions.
In addition to pedestrian soy sauce, you (sometimes) get a chipotle dipping sauce and a wasabi aioli. There's a sake list of nearly all the poetic boutique varieties (Dreamy Clouds, Wandering Poet) at prices no poet could afford and that usually refer to a smaller size than you might expect -- although that may be one of the few times you'll think that; most dishes are pretty hefty.
Designer Gregory Hill (not the Washington chef with three g's) worked on "The Devil Wears Prada," among others, but the decor is more cute than couture. In fact, the combination of angular turquoise columns, stainless steel exposed kitchen and watery blue Nemo-ish fish mural with the stone wall and flooring left over from the defunct Bistro Asiatique makes it look as if the Jetsons had renovated the Flintstones' old house. (The reusable steel chopsticks are a good "green" item more sushi bars, at least mod ones, should adopt.)
But it's just about the loudest restaurant in town, and that's saying a lot. Even when the music isn't blaring, everyone seems to be yelling to be heard, and it just ratchets up. Sitting at the sushi bar, even next to the open kitchen -- where, as part of Trice's published philosophy of "frenetic energy," there is lots of flaming and pan-handling going on -- is one of the quietest spots in the place.
As to the sushi itself: The fish is generally good, although one night's uni was elderly and another's better but not prime; but the rice is inexcusable, sticky and unseasoned. You'd be hard-pressed to believe that any of the three sushi chefs had even visual contact with rice vinegar. Sure, many Americans think that's what the dipping sauces are for, to saturate the rice -- and that may also be why so many of the rolls have some sort of chili additive -- but in fact the rice is the primary source of the flavor balance; the soy and wasabi should be minimal.
Conversely, several of the spicy dishes are overdone -- fine if you only stick a tasting spoon in, but oppressive in larger doses. The spicy Brazilian tomato soup was seasoned to the point that it lost its flavor after a few bites (and the grilled shrimp went bitter against the soup; a bite of crab would be a better bet). The Moroccan rice cake rolled with peas and corn beneath the duck breast was almost fine, but the overdose of spices eventually overwhelmed everything else.
The deep-fried rolls aren't greasy, which is good, but they sometimes go beyond crispy to crunchy; the lobster spring roll that came with the monkfish was long dried out. The monkfish itself -- a tricky fish often mishandled -- was bland. Dumplings are passable, but the dough can be dense. The butter-braised lobster was a high point, tender and clean-tasting; but the accompanying lobster mac 'n' cheese tasted of nothing but the rendered grease from the cheese. (In fact, the whole lobster-mac craze is a triumph of marketing over taste to rival white zinfandel's.)
Trice's fondness for food trends includes a deconstruction of curried fish: roasted whole bronzini under a curry paste served on banana leaves with sliced tomatoes layered around, a bowl of sticky rice and "ancho banana jam" in a second bowl. It exemplified Yin Yankee's problem of big picture vs. technical detail: The server boned the fish by first decapitating it, which is not only poor style, and ruins whatever grace might be afforded the skeleton, but tends to break off some bones (and there were plenty left). Even stranger, considering it was boned, the fish was served with a steak knife.
The banana jam was really cubed bananas tossed in chili seasonings, so that neither that nor the tomatoes could easily be combined with the fish rather than tasted sequentially. A draft of a good idea, perhaps, but a trial run short of a cohesive plating.
There is certainly evidence of quality here. Despite the menu's emphasis on seafood, the meat dishes are generally more reliable. The American Kobe beef culotte (sirloin cap) was very good, the leaner cut offsetting the sometimes mushy quality of that high-fat beef, and the truffle-scented fries that came with it, crispy shoestrings like a better version of the old Durkee's potato sticks, were very good. (It's a one potato-two potato dish, the bed being mashed potatoes that took the brunt of the salting.) The duck breast was fine.
The exception was the foie gras, which has been offhandedly salted, seared to the charcoaling point while still raw inside -- another case of too much "energy" -- and served without any sort of bread to dilute it. (But then, though toast was provided upon request, bread is generally not in evidence here.)
Portions are generous. A bowl of seaweed salad could serve the table (all the salads are on the hefty side). The "crabchop" -- Yin Yankee's version of crab cakes, battered and looking something like a Japanese katsu -- is pretty large at $15. Soup and "noodly" bowls are on the filling side, too; the noodle bowls start at $9, with optional chicken, duck, shrimp or tofu toppings. The crab and lemongrass "chowda" with a smatter of ham and corn is almost as close to potato hash as chowder, but plenty filling and ultimately sort of ingratiating. The (unfried) chicken summer roll had an attractive burst of fresh basil inside.
There is a happy hour/late night menu of sushi, dumplings, mussels, etc. (Although Yin Yankee does not currently open for lunch on Saturday, it will in the fall.) The wine list is short but well-chosen, and the staff has sealable plastic go-bags for wine that nicely adhere to state regs. The tea options are interesting, and the ginger limeaid very refreshing. In addition to the jizakes there are some name-brand-happy cocktails. It also has a handful of fairly interesting beers.
Even with all its slips, Yin Yankee is very nearly redeemed by the personable staff, and it has the sort of freewheeling menu that could make it a frequent stop. Meanwhile, however, a good sit-down tasting and a little server training ought to be on the menu.