Yayoi's decor is sparse: vertical wood slats on one wall, the other walls white, and the only decoration is two small planter boxes in one corner. Tabletops are unadorned wood. Center tables are communal and side tables have dividers to break up the room. It's a clean look, sleek and utilitarian.
As the first U.S. restaurant from a multibillion-dollar Japanese chain, Yayoi Japanese Teishoku Restaurant on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is trendy, stylish and novel.
Teishoku (pronounced "tay-show-ku") means set menu -- a well-balanced meal consisting of miso soup, a main dish, rice, and a vegetable side, all served at the same time on a handsome lacquered tray.
At Yayoi, there are laminated menus to explain the food, though no waitstaff to take orders. Instead, guests order on tablets that are affixed to each table. It was easy to add on an item or beverage if one wanted something additional during the meal. When finished, a tap of the tablet and the bill is brought to the table.
No worry if the process seems daunting at first; there are plenty of servers to help out. Even low-tech me got the hang of it quickly. Because there is no waitstaff, just servers, the company has a no-tipping policy. If customers leave money , the restaurant donates it to local charities.
The menus offer photos of the dishes, available options and add-ons, and a section for appetizers that could have served as a la carte items. It's formula food, the portions carefully weighed and measured, though it was a positive sign that Yayoi was filled with Japanese patrons during each of my visits.
The miso katsu ($15.50) was a panko-encrusted, fork-tender pork cutlet simmered in a miso-based sauce. The soft-boiled egg on the side was intended to top the pork and mix with the rich miso sauce. It was a great flavor combination. The miso soup was tasty, as was the side of tofu with edamame and thinly sliced mushrooms in a sweet vinegary sauce. The side dishes rotate, but this was my favorite one.
The Kinmemai rice, imported from Japan, was moist and creamy with a slight nutty taste. Kinmemai rice is a proprietary product that claims to have nutritional qualities superior to ordinary white rice.
Hitsumabushi barbecued eel ($22) was served over noodles with condiments and dashi sauce on the side. The dish came with instructions on how to cut the eel and add the dashi and condiments. Dashi, made from dried kelp, dried and smoked tuna, anchovies and/or sardines, is frequently used in Japanese broths. The eel had a delicate flavor -- not fishy, fatty or rubbery. The texture reminded me of tuna sashimi even though it was cooked.
I was perplexed by the nanban egg-coated fried chicken ($15.50) topped with sweet-and-sour sauce and tartar sauce. I thought perhaps something was lost in translation. Tartar sauce with fried chicken? Yes, it was tartar sauce all right, and it just didn't work for me. The chicken itself was nicely fried, crisp and moist. The sweet-and-sour sauce was barely detectable but the glob of tartar sauce I scraped aside.
The teriyaki salmon ($18.50) was stir-fried with vegetables, green salad and the requisite miso soup and rice. A dollop of Japanese mayonnaise was served on the side, mercifully. Why mayo with salmon, I have no idea. The salmon didn't taste particularly fresh, and while not overly disappointing, it was my least-favorite dish.
Yayoi has plenty of other options, including salads, beef, chicken, pork and fish teishoku plus salmon sashimi dishes.
At least half of the menu of specialty desserts weren't available on each of my visits. Ohagi ($5) was a steamed sticky rice ball with sweet red beans. I found it a little more slimy than sticky and cloyingly sweet.
More interesting and delicious was the matcha warabi mochi ($6), a dessert jelly made from bracken starch and coated with green tea powder. Bracken is a fern and the starch is painstakingly ground from the roots. A specialty of the Kansai region, it is reportedly a popular summertime treat in Japan.
As for drinks, there were 10 sakes available, plus a sake-tasting flight. Sakes and wines are sold by the glass, carafe or bottle. Beer, soft drinks and a selection of teas rounded out the beverage menu.
Yayoi is already a popular spot, and reservations are recommended even at lunch. Ordering by tablet is novel but I do miss having a waitperson who could yell to the kitchen, "Hold the mayo and tartar sauce."
403 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m daily.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer, wine, sake
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate to high
Bathroom cleanliness: good