I consider myself a bit of a sushi snob. Mostly this manifests in an aversion to maki (or rolls). To me, maki is for sushi-eating amateurs, the people who want dressed up tempura or fake crab stick wrapped in rice. Give me my nigiri (sushi) and sashimi any time—the more esoteric (hello uni and live scallop!), the better. Yamato has made me rethink this point of view. To be sure, their nigiri and sashimi are delicious—fresh and thickly sliced and always lovingly assembled. But after my first few visits to the Timonium restaurant, I started experiencing what could only be described as "maki envy." All around me, people were ordering these simply gorgeous sushi rolls, and scarfing them down with unmasked glee. Finally, I succumbed, ordering a special roll of mango and salmon in a spicy sauce. The roll was just beautiful—artfully drizzled in orange and red sauces and smattered with sesame seeds. The combination of the sweet mango and the rich salmon with that tiny kick of hot sauce was refreshing, surprising, and delicious. I was hooked.
Since then, I've pretty much become an all-maki-all-the-time gal at Yamato, indulging in crispy spicy tuna rolls, red snapper rolls, kiwi rolls, pictured, and Black Dragon rolls (filled with eel and—gasp!—shrimp tempura). I tend to turn to their special rolls of the night, where the chef does some of his most creative work. But there really is no such thing as an average maki at Yamato—or an average anything for that matter. Oftentimes, at small sushi joints like Yamato, the non-sushi offerings are a mere afterthought, a necessary evil for the rare customer who doesn't "do" sushi. Not so at Yamato, where everything on the pan-Asian menu—from teriyaki to Thai chili chicken to Korean-style beef rib—is homey and delicious, worthy of a visit to the restaurant in its own right.
The great food alone would explain Yamato's popularity, but the friendliness of the service takes it over the top. Unless the place is packed beyond belief (and it does get a little nuts on the weekends), the gracious owner/chef will come out and greet you, check on you several times, and possibly even pour you refills on your beer. (Yamato is BYOB, but the liquor store two doors down cleverly sells Sapporos by the oil can.) The two waitresses will dote on you like a treasured house guest. In the end, my only complaint about Yamato is its uninspiring location (it shares space in an oh-so glamorous Timonium strip mall with a Super Fresh and a PetSmart). Oh, that and the fact that it shook the very foundation of my sushi-eating identity. Change, when wrapped in seaweed at least, is good.