Rocky Aoki didn't invent teppanyaki dining, but he did introduce the Japanese tabletop cooking concept to the States in 1964, when he opened his first Benihana in New York City. Rocky can also claim credit for revving up the crowd-pleasing antics of his hibachi chefs way before Emeril. Aoki so popularized the idea that you'll know what to expect when you work your way through the loud, chaotic entrance of Dolphin Mall and into Kobe Japanese Steak & Seafood. You'll be seated at a large table with a stainless-steel griddle (teppan) in the center and an exhaust hood above. There will be ten seats around each teppan, so you might end up seated with strangers. Tablemates bond, and though the connection may not be quite as powerful as those formed during, say, jury duty, you might nonetheless feel compelled to say goodnight on your way out.
On our way in, a trio of couples already seated at the table gave us a cold stare, as if we had tardily traipsed into an opera house after the lights had dimmed. In fact nobody had even chosen from the main courses, which included New York strip steak, filet mignon, shrimp, chicken, scallops, lobster, salmon, swordfish, or some combo. Our waiter pressured us to order quickly, but we lucked into a little more time when the couple immediately to my right seats are tight stood up and left in protest over management's hard-line stance concerning a spurned sushi appetizer. As they exited, the manager explained to the rest of us that "once the fish is cut, it can't be returned."
Our waiter eagerly added, "Sushi is dangerous!" with such an intensity of conviction that I reconsidered my sashimi appetizer order and asked instead for dumplings and vegetable tempura. It really doesn't make much sense to ask for any starter here, because all entrées come with soup, salad, and a sampling of miniature shrimp. Plus the appetizers we tried weren't impressive the dumplings too greasy, the tempura batter overly thick.
The very short list of sakes and wines is uninspired. I have a less kind word for the soup and salad courses: awful. The former is a watery chicken broth with two raw mushroom slices floating on top, and the latter, ice-cold iceberg lettuce with sweet miso-ginger dressing, would have satisfied had the greens been properly cleansed of gritty sand.
From the beginning, all attention was turned to our chef, Yohan, as he wheeled out a cart stocked with foods, plastic squeeze bottles (filled with soy, mirin, "secret sauces"), and tools of the teppanyaki trade (sharp knife, two-tined fork, and a pair of metal spatulas). In the dining room there are sixteen stainless-steel tabletops, every one helmed by a chef who expertly twirls knives, juggles peppermills, and exhibits a dazzling display of dexterity in cutting, cooking, seasoning, and portioning out each diner's meal. Still, a circuslike sadness lurks in the shadows, and I couldn't help but wonder whether working under these conditions is purgatory for disgraced Japanese culinarians.
It's all about getting the right chef. One of the couples at our table, who were making a return visit, confided in regretful tones about how "The guy we had last week was very serious." Yohan was anything but his well-rehearsed shtick began by drizzling a smiley face with oil and setting it aflame. Then he got to work by quickly sizzling a squadron of shrimp; squirting them with soy, mirin, garlic, lemon, and butter; and forking over a pair to each one of us. They were perfectly luscious, easily the tastiest morsels we would try all night.
Kobe Japanese Steak doesn't serve any Kobe Japanese steak or, for that matter, any American-style Kobe (wagyu). Naming this place Kobe Japanese Steak & Seafood, in fact, is a little like calling a Kia car dealership Rolls Royce Autos. The restaurant derives its moniker from the seaport city of Kobe, not from any link with that area's legendary beef. If the prices don't make this fact apparent (New York strip, $18.95; filet mignon, $22.95), the taste sure will.
Now that we've established the meat doesn't come from a cow whose beer-swelled belly has been mellowed with music and massage, let's cut to the real problem with my steak: Although I told both the waiter and Yohan that I'd like it cooked medium-rare, it came out medium-well. Had the steak not been overcooked, it would have been decent enough, which is also how I would describe the diced chicken breast. Same goes for a stir-fried medley of shredded onions, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes that is served at the end of every meal, although it contained a little too much soy sauce.
I try to enjoy places like Kobe for what they are, and not take things too seriously. After all, it's really about the show. Just the same, a number of mistakes were made. Some examples:
When the waiter first took our orders, he asked each of us: "You want the fried rice with that, right?" in a tone that suggested it came with the meal. It didn't. The extra $2-per-person cost is negligible, but those who didn't request it were left starch-less according to the menu, they should have been served white rice.
Food continues to cook as it sits on the surface of the teppan, so each item is plated as soon as it is ready. One of us ordered a main course of scallops, which were sautéed and served long before anyone else at the table began eating. This could have easily been avoided by placing the quick-cooking shellfish on the griddle last, rather than first.
Water glasses were never refilled, and when the chef began tossing the main-course foods onto plates, I still had a bowl of partially eaten salad on mine. I moved it to the side, but no waiter came by to swoop it up.
Plumes of dirty steam ascended through the vents as the chef scrubbed the teppanyaki grill while we munched on our main courses. We wondered: Would the dishwasher be coming out to perform next?
"Cheesecake or vanilla ice cream. That's all we've got." I know teppanyaki joints serve Westernized desserts, but this is one pathetic selection.
The teppanyaki experience isn't for everyone, but kids certainly like it. I can attest to this because there were numerous youngsters in the room, and each one seemed to be continuously squealing with delight. Adults sometimes catch themselves jumping for joy as well, especially during the showstopping, Jennifer-Hudson-in-Dreamgirls-moment known as "The Flaming Volcano," when fire, smoke, and then bubbling soy sauce shoot lavalike through a funnel of onion rings piled upon the griddle.
The old toss-an-egg-in-the-air-with-a-spatula-and-catch, then split-it-in-half-with-a-cleaver trick precipitated a spontaneous smattering of applause around the teppan, too, as did Yohan snaring a flying lemon half with the tip of his paring knife. Then there was the catch-the-shrimp-in-your-mouth portion of the program. I was the only one to snag two consecutive snippets of flying crustacean. I was grateful not to have been asked to stand on a beach ball, clap hands, and go "arf arf" while doing so.
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