Walking into Yama Sushi in Ellicott City, the first thing we noticed were the polka dots.
Posted behind a long bar, two busy-looking sushi chefs sliced fish and rolled rice with seaweed. Instead of the severe white coats usually favored by their brethren, both wore black jackets with big white polka dots.
At Yama Sushi, the food is serious — it's made with precision and presented with care — but the atmosphere is lighthearted.
Those cheeky jackets fit right in with the space, which is decorated to the hilt with Asian-inspired tchotchkes. Thanks to dark wood and warm lighting, the restaurant's decor isn't tacky, but it is busy.
When we arrived, a few minutes before 7 p.m. on a Thursday, we walked into a flurry of activity. The restaurant wasn't packed — there were plenty of open tables — but we arrived just ahead of another small group. The hostess greeted all of us with big smiles, but confusion took over and the other group was seated before us.
Fortunately, that minor snafu was the biggest glitch we experienced all night. A moment later, after a sweet apology from the hostess, we settled at another table and ordered beers — a refreshing Kirin Light ($5) and a slightly more substantial Sapporo (also $5) — which arrived with impressive speed.
Yama Sushi offers the standard mix of sashimi and sushi, plus a daunting list of several dozen specialty rolls.
We started off simply, with an appetizer of tuna sashimi ($6). Presented on a tangle of skinny white noodles, four bright pink slices of tuna were thick, fatty and luscious. The appetizer held no surprises, but the neat presentation and fresh flavor were lovely.
An order of edamame ($4.50) was also standard but pleasing — salty, hot and tender.
From that long list of sushi rolls, we chose two: A spicy tuna roll ($5.50) and the more elaborate Columbia roll ($14.95).
Arriving together on a wooden board, the rolls were tight and neat, without stray rice or crumbling seaweed wrappers. They held together as we ate them, too.
The tuna roll was straightforward but capably prepared, with the tuna so finely chopped, it was almost a paste. Bits of crunchy tempura added texture, and a light hand with the spices let the tuna's rich flavor shine.
Both longer and wider than the tuna roll, the Columbia roll was impressive-looking. It was also approachable for less adventurous sushi eaters. Inside the roll, crab and tempura shrimp were sweet, tender, crunchy — and cooked. Chili sauce brought a shock of heat but was balanced by creamy avocado.
The Columbia roll could have rested on its pyramid of sweet, spicy, and crunchy. But with vaguely herbaceous notes added to the combination — we thought we caught a hint of thyme — the Yama Sushi chefs created something unexpected and sophisticated.
Yama Sushi's non-sushi options are limited but prepared with as much care as those made behind the sushi bar.
The chicken teriyaki dinner ($14.75) came with a steaming hot bowl of savory miso soup and a fresh green salad with ginger dressing. Thinner in texture and less spicy than some versions, the dressing had a sweet tomato flavor similar to French dressing.
The chicken itself was plump and cooked until just tender, dressed in a sweet teriyaki sauce. Under the chicken, barely cooked zucchini, onions and carrots were fresh, crispy and extra tasty after a dip in the teriyaki.
On the side, sesame-sprinkled rice was fragrant and moist.
Like the hostess, our waitress was remarkably sweet and smiley. She was efficient, too. Drinks and appetizers arrived quickly, as they were ready. Most notably, the rolls and chicken teriyaki, though prepared in different parts of the restaurant, came at the same time.
Yama Sushi's dessert menu includes the usual sushi joint standards. Though the sticky rice with mango ($5.95) wasn't quite as sweet and flavorful as some versions of the dessert, the mango was tender.
More enjoyable was a large dome of fried ice cream ($5.50), hot and crispy on the outside and cold inside. Hand-coated and flash-fried in the kitchen, the ice cream arrived sundae-style, dressed with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
When we left, the same two chefs were still behind the bar, still working furiously, still sporting those polka-dotted jackets. As their hands moved, we spied one of them saying a few words, drawing a chuckle out of the other.
From laughing sushi chefs to smiling waitresses, the Yama Sushi staff seemed happy to be there. But thanks to the genial service and the neatly packaged, sometimes surprising food, the diners were the happiest of all.
Rating: *** 1/2
Back story: Open since 2010, Yama Sushi in Ellicott City serves neatly presented sushi and capably prepared hot dishes in a warm, friendly environment.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The Columbia roll — crab, shrimp tempura, and avocado, topped with chili sauce — is a fun-to-eat combination of sweet, spicy and crunchy.
Where: Dorsey's Search Village Center; 4725 Dorsey Hall Drive, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-997-3688, yamasushimd.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Reservations: Accepted, but walk-ins are welcome
[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]