PLEASE, SIR, CAN I HAVE SUMO?

My wife, who generally eats beef with all the enthusiasm of a Hindu mystic, was stunned at the result. It was the tenderest piece of beef she'd ever encountered. The scallops, too, were superb, with a juicy, just-from-the-sea taste that makes them my favorite shellfish.

Even better, my wife decided to save room for the tempura dish we'd ordered. So she passed me half her beef and scallops. Where was she in the spring of 1969, when I needed her? For those who think that setting foot in a Japanese restaurant is as daring as anything Indiana Jones ever tried, the tempura dinners are a good choice. Since they're prepared back in the kitchen, not at tableside, you lose out on the show. But they're outstanding even without the bells and whistles.

The sakura tempura dinner brought cleverly scaffolded pieces of fresh, lightly battered, delicately fried shrimp, crab and scallops, as well as an assortment of veggies: squash, carrot, onion, green pepper and asparagus. There was an ample portion, a good dish to share.

Location Info

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Ayako of Tokyo

2564 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Phoenix

Twenty-three years late I finally hit the Japanese restaurant daily double: a full stomach, and a woman who agreed to go home with me.

Shogun, 12615 North Tatum, 953-3264. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

If Ayako promises novelty and adventure, the popular Shogun offers reassurance. The decor is designed to put the average Illinois transplant at ease. Familiar wicker-backed Breuer chairs, wood-laminated tables and black-vinyl booths offset the Japanese prints on the wall. In the background is soothing flute music, a sort of Japanese Muzak. The clientele looks reassuringly familiar, too. At Ayako, at least half the customers were speaking Japanese. Here not a single patron on a recent Sunday night hailed from the mysterious East, unless you consider Scottsdale and Paradise Valley part of the Orient.

The small, ten-seat sushi bar, barely visible over a half wall from the dining area, had no empty seats. A few samples showed why: Shogun slices up compelling tuna, salmon and eel sushi. Those at the bar were making a meal of it, and we should have followed their lead.

Shogun's entrees ranged from insipid to disappointing. Samurai steak is about a half-pound of thin-sliced New York steak. It was tender enough (though not in Ayako's league), but the fat hadn't been adequately trimmed from the edges. The sweetish teriyaki sauce smothered it, masking much of the beef flavor. And why, after a tasty sunomono nicely perked up with roasted sesame seeds, would the chef surround the steak with iceberg lettuce drenched with coffee-shop salad dressing? And why wasn't the beer cold enough? For an extra $3.75, I got an order of tempura with dinner, a generous mix of shrimp, cod and vegetables. The batter was not nearly as light as Ayako's lacy version, but more like what you'd find around happy-hour zucchini strips or onion rings.

My wife's entree left us with long faces. Shogun shrimp promised shrimp in "Shogun's own special seasonings" tossed with thick udon noodles. The noodles were fine, if nothing special, but the shrimp were more like rubbery McNuggets. They were cut up instead of whole and carried an off-putting coating. They'd lost their briny freshness and distinctive taste.

Except for sushi, which can't be tamed, Shogun serves up nonmenacing fare in comfortable surroundings. They obviously know what they're doing. During the past decade, the restaurant has continued to attract and satisfy the locals. A friend of mine, a Milwaukee native and Shogun enthusiast, raves about its turkey salad, a weeknight dinner special. Turkey salad? I'm holding out for the corned beef on rye.

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