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Eastern promises 

Does South Charlotte's Yama succeed?

Being in the spotlight can be exciting. Being blinded by the light of an approaching car while dining is a definite mood slayer. For an easy fix, the landlord erects a simple planter/barrier near the curb, thus shielding the eyes of the dining patrons, right? What can the affected restaurateur do without this? Paul Wu has blinds on his windows, but these have little effect on super-bright halogen headlights.

Exterior lighting is only one of the issues at Wu's 80-seat Yama Asian Fusion. Interior lights illuminate with fluorescents as well -- so much for the ambiance. To compensate, though, Wu comes forth issuing oshibori, hot towels as a prelim to dining. These feel good and attempt to reset the tone.

Located in the mixed use Morrison Center in South Park, Yama honors Asian traditions by offering an ambitious menu. For Wu's family, Yama is not their first restaurant venture. Joyce Yang, Wu's wife, and her family have owned Osaka in Charleston for 10 years and the Osaka in Cornelius for four. Yang's brother Steve, a partner in this venture, is the Itamae (sushi chef). Both Wu and the Yangs are ethnic Taiwanese.

But sometimes when striving to be too much, little is accomplished. Yama's sushi is listless at best while lacking a visual appeal that sets stage for a parade of culinary treats. These rolls are simply sliced and not upended to create drama, while the interiors are monotoned. Nigiri is offered in quantity rather than quality. To order uni (sea urchin) the sushi bar must radiate perfection. Even though this counter was less than perfect, I tried the uni anyway. I shouldn't have.

For those novices or sushi squeamish, of Yama's 30 "special" rolls more than half are prepared fried (tempura) or smoked and are marked as such. The rolls, on the other hand, are as about as original as those found in a South Park grocery store.

What was exceptional was the hamachi kama, an opulent dish of crispy collar of yellowtail tuna. The collar is that part of the fish between first fins and face and is prime real estate for succulent meat. Picking through the bone for flavorful mouthfuls via chopsticks is delightful. Albeit pricey for an appetizer at $11, this kama is spectacular in taste.

The daily roster holds a dozen pathetically plain hibachi dishes ($13 through $25) inclusive of a clear soup, an iceberg salad with a literal dollop of ginger dressing -- yes, it sat on the top -- and fried rice. Yama has a small wine list, a handful of sakis, and some beers.

The menu is chock-full of entrée offerings leaning towards that East West nexus: fish and chips with Hawaiian salsa, grilled filet mignon with a ginger-soy glaze ($23), chicken tenders with a spicy orange sauce, and grilled chicken with a wasabi pepper sauce. The "Love Boat for Two" is an assortment of sushi, sashimi, and maki for $46.95. Even though the kitchen has a decade of experience in Charleston and a few months here, the kitchen creeps. This allows time for counting the goings and comings of a number of cars, musing over the saki in a box behind the bar, and casually watching the gentle swaying of the wine glasses suspended above the bar. Most customers seemed too engaged in conversation to care.

"Fusion" is one of those 1990s throwback words like "whatever" that got overplayed. Does fusion mean to be all things to all people? Or is it a mishmash of blended food ingredients from a specialized geographical region? Does a soy glaze on a steak make it an East West dish? After all, the word "tempura" is from Portuguese, not Japanese; but was used by the Japanese to describe a European culinary technique that we now all associate with this Asian island. Confusing? Indeed. But lest we all stand arm-in-arm singing "We are the world," let us at least agree that cuisine has become global and any other monikers are mere marketing schemes. Yama doesn't purport to be a Japanese sushi shop or restaurant; Yama is "Asian fusion." Owner Wu says he is "focusing on an East-meets-West taste." Still I wager that Yama's karma is in the kama.

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