Restaurant Review: Stephen Starr’s Pod in University City grows up

Executive chef Kenjiro Omori and Kevin Yanaga are pictured.

When Stephen Starr opened Pod in 2000, the University City spot was an avatar of prickly Pan-Asian cuisine and bold, glossy design. From its robot sushi conveyor belt and mood-lit private dining pods to its inventive menu, Pod circa 2000 was era-appropriate event dining.

Now, 23-years-later — after last year’s pitstop at Korean-inspired fare with chef Peter Serpico under the Kpod banner — Starr, Pod’s returning sushi whisperer Kevin Yanaga, corporate chef Mark Hellyar and executive chef Kenjiro Omori have remade Pod into something subtler than its initial iteration.

Pod 2023 is still an event, just a more refined, chilled affair.

“The biggest change is that we are trying to stay true to Japanese taste as much as possible,” said Yanaga. “Using insights from Mark, Kenjiro and myself we can lean into other flavors without betraying what we feel is Japanese. We want to stay in touch with ingredients and techniques but simultaneously drawing a little influence here and there when needed. If we stay within our philosophy of “Japanese culinary foundations, with a fun twist,” we feel that it can be broad and diverse enough for a larger audience.

Refreshed from its flashy minimal design origins (now, lacquered wood and softer pastel tones) with a focused Japanese menu heavy on imaginative sushi/sashimi (e.g., Butter Krab Roll with warm clarified butter), and alive with innovative culinary tweaking such as Japanese fried chicken (cleverly teased as “JFC,” a play on KFC) and spicy cod roe-laden Mentaiko spaghetti, this is now a grown-up Pod.


So grown-up and so all-encompassing a challenge is the new Pod that Yanaga realigned his schedule so to reunite with Starr in University City.

“In regard to returning to Pod, it is an opportunity to rejoin a company that I am familiar with,” he said. “Opening a restaurant is very challenging, but this kind of experience is priceless for me. I was told I could build the best sushi program in the city, which inspired me to take on this challenge.”

And unlike the old saying, “too many chefs,” Yanaga stated that he happily plays well with the others in Pod and Starr’s employ.

“Teamwork with Mark and Kenjiro is very open,” said Yanaga. “Mark and I have conversations about what we believe would work best for the hot kitchen and sushi programs. He and I develop and dream about what the menu can become. Kenjiro is here to execute and to make sure that the day to day is running smoothly as well as making sure the developed recipes are implemented for daily production.”

When it comes to the wow-factor flavor profiles that make the new Pod unique, everything from their robata grill dishes and crispy skin salmon with Fuji apple, to its A5-grade shabu yaki don (Japanese Hokkaido snow beef thinly sliced and flash-grilled) and Cedar-Smoked Shima-Aji sushi is as flavorful as it is playful. Even serving Pod’s Japanese fried chicken (seriously, the best new fried chicken in the city) in a KFC-like bucker is serious fun.


“The taste sensation here is for bold and fun Japanese food,” Yanaga said. “We are trying to introduce classic Japanese cuisine that maybe isn’t the most mainstream to a broader audience. It’s not quite Izakaya or Kaiseki but somewhere in between. It is approachable food that is also exciting.”

For all of the fun and the flavors that make the new Pod a delight, Kevin Yanaga considers returning to 37th and Sansom a homecoming.

“The most special part of the Pod experience is reflecting on the times I have been here in the past,” he said. “Being able to reminisce about Pod, but also be a part of this new Pod, is very special to everyone involved here.”