Seconds Over Tokyo

Ah-So, 6033 West Bell, Glendale, 978-1177. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Is Phoenix a big-league city? You can use all sorts of yardsticks to measure.

Is there a symphony orchestra? Are there museums? What about theatre? Professional sports? Foreign-language films? Neiman Marcus? Reliable public transportation? Well, six out of seven aren't bad.

But I think there's an even better big-league gauge: Count up the number of Japanese restaurants.

Why is the availability of Japanese food such an unmistakable sign of urban cosmopolitanism?

First of all, the fare is so utterly unfamiliar, so completely different from what the meat-and-potato masses are used to. Second, this cuisine requires a certain degree of dining sophistication. Not everyone appreciates the charms of elegant simplicity, both in presentation and taste. Even today, I suspect, most Americans' first instinct, after an encounter with sashimi, is to think "bait." Third, although a Japanese meal is undeniably foreign and ethnic, it certainly doesn't come at Third World cost. You could order a week's worth of tacos or chow mein for what it takes to fill up at a sushi bar.

In short, Japanese restaurants depend on an affluent, worldly, adventurous clientele to thrive.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that ten years ago, you could have counted the number of Japanese restaurants in the Valley on the fingers of one hand, and still have had enough digits left over to insert in a bowling ball.

These days, however, it's another story. New arrivals and well-heeled tourists are fueling a Japanese-restaurant boomlet. But the tale goes beyond sheer numbers. Look, for example, where the proprietors of Ah-So have chosen to set up shop.

The strip mall at the southeast corner of 61st Avenue and West Bell Road is unlikely to remind anyone of downtown Tokyo, despite the presence of Yamaha and Kawasaki dealers just across the street. No one's going to confuse the lot with swanky, high-priced Scottsdale real estate, either.

But the decision to open a Japanese restaurant on the west side strikes me as a stroke of genius. Yes, the west side is home to every chain and fast-food restaurant on the planet. No, the west side has never been an upscale-dining destination. But the demographics have changed significantly during the past few years. One west-side restaurant operator told me the area is home to more and more "upper-middle-class professionals who are familiar with fine dining," who've settled on the west side as "an alternative to the overpriced Scottsdale area."

And these folks have discovered Ah-So. At both of my midweek visits, I ran into an encouraging number of Japanese-food fans. And why not? This stuff is good enough to have a Scottsdale zip code.

Ah-So looks a lot better than most storefront restaurants. Sure, there's the usual parking-lot view. But your gaze will probably be diverted by the bucolic, koi-filled stream running down the center of the room. A couple of bonsai trees, a pair of pagodas, river rocks, a dragon and a stone turtle line the picturesque riverbed.

But once you sit down for the teppanyaki show, your eyes should stay glued on the chef. Eight chairs line three sides of a rectangular table, whose inner surface is a sizzling grill. (Unless you come with seven friends, expect to share the table with strangers.) The fourth side is reserved for the knife-twirling chef, who is armed with enough blades to take a serene stroll through Central Park at midnight.

The performance begins. After the chef fires up the grill, he takes an egg and repeatedly tosses it in the air, gently catching it each time on the back of a spatula. Suddenly, after an especially high toss, he whips out a knife and catches the egg dead center on the razor-sharp blade. The shell remains on the knife, while egg slowly drips down each side to the hissing grill. Then he blends it into a heaping pile of rice.

Next, he turns to the main ingredients--you can order shrimp, scallops, chicken and steak, either alone or in combination--and begins a series of rapid-fire slicing-and-dicing maneuvers. After the shrimp tails are cut off, for example, he bangs the grill with his spatula, launching the tails high in the air. They come down behind his back, into a waiting bowl. Then he works on the vegetables--onion, broccoli, carrot, zucchini--which get a quick sizzle.

Finally, everything gets doled out to the hungry spectators, whose senses of smell and sight, at this point, have already been stretched to the limit.

Happily, their sense of taste is in for a good time, too. The ingredients are first-rate: firm, meaty shrimp; big, juicy sea scallops; boneless chicken breast, glazed with teriyaki sauce; and tender, gristle-free beef.

And, I'm thrilled to report, there's no stinting on the portions. I still have vivid memories of my first visit to a teppanyaki restaurant, accompanied by three of my hulking fraternity brothers and our dates. I remember watching the chef attending to a small pile of meat and veggies, worrying that it would not be enough to fill me up. Then, to my horror, I realized that this wasn't my individual serving, but dinner for eight.

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