Ode to Yama Q
IT’S LOW-PROFILE, SMALL, AND NEVER SEEMS TO CHANGE. IT’S ALSO ONE OF OUR FAVORITE PLACES TO EAT, ANYWHERE. AS LANG PHIPPS WRITES, THIS BRIDGEHAMPTON RESTAURANT’S ENDURING SUCCESS IS ALL ABOUT FRESHNESS OVER FLASH
It’s too awful a pun to say there’s a catch when writing a story about a fish restaurant, but here it’s almost unavoidable. My plan was to rave about Yama-Q, but the owner/master chef didn’t have time to talk to me and passed me off to his son. From my experience with this unclassified gem in Bridgehampton, this wasn’t churlishness on the owner’s part but a distinctly Japanese blend of humility and work ethic: He was busy running a restaurant.
Hisao Shiroyama opened Yama-Q, the name a coded version of his own, in 1997. It has stayed a notably un-Hamptons phenomenon, a survivor that is content to be small and quietly hardworking and a little hidden. Quite a few people, myself included, think it’s the best place to eat on the East End. This is not only because the food is simple and nearly perfect, but also because the place is well-ordered, precise, and peaceful as a Zen garden; a figurative exhale one enters from the breathless scene of a Hamptons Main Street.
If Yama-Q is an outsider, it’s perhaps the most embedded in the land and sea from its mission to source locally as much as possible for its menu. Maaki Shiroyama, who helps run the store along with his brothers, Saneto and Tohmi, told me his dad has longstanding relationships with farmers who deliver only their best greens, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Hisao-san gets his fish from Gosman’s Dock in Montauk or Cor-J’s in Hampton Bays, both purveyors with fishing boats at their back door, or from Braun’s Seafood out of Cutchogue. For selections that aren’t indigenous, he will drive to J.F.K. to pick up flash-frozen shipments from Japan.
In 1985, Hisao-san and a friend from his Greenwich Village days turned an East Hampton barn into a steakhouse named Fresno Place. It served some of the first sushi on the East End, and led the partners to move on to Sen, the Japanese restaurant in Sag Harbor (which is under new ownership today). He raised his family in Sag Harbor—then the most low-key East End village—but decided to launch Yama-Q right on Bridgehampton’s Main Street, where Montauk Highway traffic provides a reliable stream of potential customers. The concept was Kyoto-style food, which is traditionally Japanese, with an emphasis on light, natural tastes, with no heavy seasoning.
This style of cooking is a kind of Eastern version of Tuscan cuisine, which is some of the original “slow food,” built on whole, unprocessed, servings of fish, poultry, and greens. Typical Yama-Q fare includes Montauk monkfish fritters with lemon-herb aioli, a vegetarian stew with chives, bamboo shoots, royal fern, Japanese mushrooms, wilted greens, brown rice, and barley.
In his fourth decade cooking, Shiroyama has become a technical master. He can identify the temperature of the ocean from the eyes of the fish he is brought; he has mastered smoking fish flesh, and not just salmon.
Consistent excellence inspires loyalty, and Yama-Q has regulars going back decades. It’s still the Hamptons, and you can count on spotting the odd celebrity. Alan Alda is a die-hard fan, and Sarah Jessica Parker has been seen eating healthy here, as well as that ex-Massapequa townie Alec Baldwin. Baldwin. The kitchen was abuzz one night with reports of a Wolverine sighting: Hugh Jackman was in the house.
Online, the foodOnline, the food sites have rave reviews about Yama-Q. One of my favorite reads, “Crafty food, cozy feel, no loud bitches in leather looking for guys who own a boat, divine vegetarian options, and the freshest selection of fish.” Another compares Hisao-san with a god of sushi, the celebrated Jiro Ono, star of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
For me, Yama-Q offers a connection to the perennial goodness of the East End, the healthiness of the food that grows and lives here—especially in the mellow off-season. In the summer, its location mere feet from Bobby Van’s means a binary choice between a loud, shiny scene with steak and booze and a dose of sanity and serenity with a nice grape-fennel vinaigrette.
PHOTO: Saneto Shiroyama, who runs the restaurant with his brothers, Maaki and Tohmi, handles a very fresh octopus. Zoë Pennebaker Breen photographs