Several years ago, it would have been hard to believe that three guys with deep accomplishments in fine dining would open Yatai Casual Asian restaurant on a Mineola stretch around the corner from the main drag.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in January, when Yatai opened on Main and Second streets. Named for the mobile street-food stands in Japan, Yatai offers a reasonably priced menu with a few types of handmade dumplings, ramen, Japanese fried chicken, Asian-inspired sandwiches, noodles and create-your-own bowls.
Partners Tomo Kobayashi, Jeffrey Scala and Richard Garfinkel met working for Poll Restaurants. Kobayashi, as corporate chef, oversaw the menu at places like Cipollini in Americana Manhasset, and Bryant & Cooper and Hendrick’s Tavern, both in Roslyn.
Kobayashi had opened Toku in Americana Manhasset in his early years with Poll, where he met Scala, who, before joining the company, had run the kitchen at Waterzooi Petite in Rockville Centre and worked at Gotham in Manhattan. The third partner, Richard Garfinkel, had been the CFO at Poll for 20 years.
When I saw them during my visits, it seemed incongruous to find them taking customers’ orders behind a cash register and serving dishes in paper bowls and baskets. (Granted, the space is inviting and stylish.)
Their segue to fast casual is becoming a well-tread path, as those with cred in fine dining defect to the genre. As the price of ingredients and labor rises, the fast casual market, not to be confused with fast food, has grown 550 percent since 1999, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm.
My issue with Yatai is that the restaurant leans too far into the fast aspect of fast casual. And it seems the partners are neutralizing the Asian part of Asian-inspired cuisine while adhering to the tastes of a meat-and-potatoes demographic.
But Yatai has potential. You should go, knowing that the owners often switch things up, with changes in progress such as the introduction of beer, wine and sake this week.
Here’s what to order. The dumplings are satisfying: handmade purses filled with savory meats. I’m partial to steamed over pan-fried, meats over kale and corn that I found undersalted.
You can’t really go wrong with ramen. The soy and chicken-based broth with wontons juxtaposes with bright scallions and pleasingly bitter bok choy.
But ramen lovers will prefer the Tonkotsu broth. Laced with emulsified pork fat, it’s rich and milky, complemented by thin slices of barbecued pork, a palmful of corn — a signature ingredient in northern Japan — and a soy-marinated egg.
Other dishes need work. The Japanese fried chicken should be an addictive karaage-style dish, which is chicken marinated in soy sauce, ginger and garlic, dredged in a flour mixture, then fried. During my visits, the meat was dry.
Bánh mì is a conservative sandwich, but it’s pleasing. Instead of a more traditional paté or even grilled pork, a mild chicken meatball is dressed with cilantro, romaine, pickled carrots and cucumber, and chili mayo. It’s more lively than the roast beef sandwich with Asian chimi churri, provolone and wasabi-mayo.
Vegetarians are not neglected here. From Brussels sprout sides or the roku vegetable medley to create-your-own rice or noodle bowls, it’s easy to assemble a meatless, healthy meal. Yet, I wish there were more options for fish sauce funk or bigger flavors, especially when it comes to these dishes.
Just as Mineola is evolving, so have diners’ expectations for Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese foods.
The partners at Yatai would benefit from the faith that if they were to introduce more authentic ingredients and bolder seasonings, diners would follow along.