Walking into Yellowfin Restaurant feels like stepping into someone’s home. It’s hard to describe; you know you’re in a restaurant, but it doesn’t really feel that way. The austere decor is limited to a couple small pieces of artwork on the walls and a single paper lantern hanging from the ceiling, but the atmosphere is comforting in its simplicity; no music playing, no gaudy, ornate sculptures, no white linens. The solid wood tables and chairs are left bare to expose their natural beauty. This understated approach to decorating mirrors the chef’s style, which is Yellowfin's true appeal. The simple, elegant beauty of each ingredient is always on display, without the need for ornamentation or embellishment. The meals are served as they would be in someone’s home, on nice dishes, without extraneous garnishes or decorations. Here, the food speaks for itself.
Over the years, I’ve heard from people who really like sushi that Yellowfin is their favorite place in town. The nondescript tan building, which also houses Lee’s Oriental Food grocery store, has never looked very inviting to me. But I have repeatedly been told the food at Yellowfin is amazing, so I decided to overcome my fear of the unknown and meet some friends for dinner there on a particularly nasty January night. It was single digit cold and the roads were a mess, but, to my surprise, there were still a handful of other guests in the quaint, cozy, well-lit dining room. When we sat down, the friendly waitress pointed out a half-price large warm saki special ($4.50), which was the perfect way to kick the winter chills and start our night.
We began our meal with the agedashi tofu appetizer ($5.95), soft chunks of tempura fried tofu served in a soy-based sauce with chives. The crispy tofu was served very hot and fresh from the kitchen. We also shared a shrimp gyoza appetizer ($5.95). The pan fried dumplings were very light and airy, with a strong shrimp flavor. Both appetizers were served without any garnish; again, the food is the art, in its purest and simplest form. Along with the appetizers we ordered, we were treated to a complimentary red snapper sashimi appetizer served with seaweed salad and vinegar soaked cucumbers, which was delicious. This is another of Yellowfin's charming features, the chef routinely serves complimentary dishes to the guests (after our meal, we were also given free tempura fried banana slices).
We followed the appetizers with the sushi and sashimi combo ($32.95), ten generous pieces of fresh sashimi, six pieces of sushi, and a dragon roll served unadorned on a plain, white rectangle platter. The baked eel on the dragon roll was exquisite: tender, buttery, and sweet. I could have eaten a plateful. All of the sushi and sashimi were exceptionally fresh and expertly prepared with a true sense of urgency by the house sushi chef. He worked busily and efficiently the entire time we were there; he was a pleasure to watch, a true master of his craft, poetry in motion.
Next, we ordered a few of the special rolls (big rolls): omega 3 ($14.95), white bear ($13.95), and chef's special ($17.95). The omega 3 featured tuna, white tuna, spicy tuna, and a thyme-infused olive oil. The herb oil added a nice dimension to the subtle, delicate flavors of the tuna. The white bear, made with white tuna, spicy scallop, and cucumber, had a wonderful blend of textures. The crunchy cucumber paired nicely with the spicy scallop filling inside the roll, and the white tuna layered on the outside was decadent. The chef’s special roll also featured the thyme oil, lightly drizzled on top of outstanding yellowtail (Japanese amberjack), with dollops of spicy mayo on alternating pieces. Again, the sushi was very straightforward — perhaps not as impressive looking as some of the more ornately presented rolls I’ve had in other establishments, but the simple, elegant presentation focused attention on the beauty of the fish.
To some, eating sushi is an experience, an event. It’s supposed to be exciting; there needs to be an element of entertainment to the meal. These people may be unimpressed with Yellowfin. I’ve read plenty of customer reviews from people who don’t “get it.” People complain it's too expensive. I say, you get what you pay for. Yellowfin is a place for people who love and appreciate fresh sushi and traditionally prepared Japanese food served in a clean, friendly environment. The sushi is so good, it's easy to forget they offer fantastic grill combinations and a variety of traditional Japanese noodle dishes like yaki soba, ramen, and udon noodles. Yellowfin also has a terrific lunch menu with prices ranging from $10-$12.
One thing I noticed on my visit was that most of the customers appeared to be regulars. The waitress greeted one group by asking, "Your regular table?" This is the type of place that has garnered a very loyal following, and it's easy to see why. Eating at Yellowfin Restaurant feels like being treated to a wonderful Japanese meal prepared in a most gracious host's home. Who wouldn't want to be a regular? I know I will be back. Soon.
Yellowfin Restaurant is located at 303 Cedar St, Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m and 5 to 9:30 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m and 5 to 10 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.