PLEASE, SIR, CAN I HAVE SUMO?
Ayako of Tokyo, 2564 East Camelback (Biltmore Fashion Park), 955-7007. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
For 23 years, I've had a grudge against Japanese restaurants.
One evening in the spring of 1969, three college frat buddies and I combed our long, scraggly hair, took off our tie-dyed "Peace" shirts and replaced torn blue jeans with bourgeois slacks and jackets.
Why? To please our dates. They wanted to eat at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, the latest culinary rage. Of course, we couldn't afford it, and we didn't like the idea of dressing up like our fathers, either. But testosterone-charged young men will spend money they don't have and adopt the Ward Cleaver wardrobe to impress members of the opposite sex. We packed not only 19-year-old hormones, but 19-year-old appetites. In fact, every "all you can eat" establishment in Brooklyn had closed its doors to us. Queens and Staten Island were getting wise to us, too. Hungry and horny, we stormed Manhattan.
At the restaurant, we removed our shoes, sat down on the floor Japanese-style and snuggled with our dates. The prospect of a full belly and late-night bliss pushed aside all thoughts of sartorial discomfort and the big bill ahead. We placed our orders and soon a chef was furiously slicing and dicing a small pile of meat and vegetables at our tabletop grill. Figuring it was my dish, I smiled gamely, even though the quantity seemed a little miserly. The chef finished, artfully composing the platter. I stuck out my plate in anticipation.
Then he divided it into eight portions.
Since I was a kid, I'd heard about people starving in Africa, but I had never guessed it could happen in a Japanese restaurant. The girls took a few bites, giggled and said they were full. Meanwhile, my friends and I were struggling against the same urge that drives certain hungry New Guinea tribesmen to head for a neighboring village armed with cutlery.
Instead, we sprinted to the nearest deli for corned-beef sandwiches. Our dates concluded they'd hooked up with crackpots, but we knew better: Hunger is a stronger drive than lust.
So I made sure I wasn't too hungry before visiting Ayako of Tokyo.
The decor is pleasingly minimalist, with lots of wood trim and virtually no decorations on the wall. There's a bar and sushi area, but the main attraction is the teppanyaki room. High-backed chairs line three sides of each large, rectangular table there. The fourth side is reserved for the chef, who grills meat, fish and vegetables on the wide grill in the center of the table. Overhead are a blower to suck up smoke, a spotlight and strategically placed water sprinklers.
The 15 teppanyaki dinners offer various combinations of chicken, New York steak, filet mignon, shrimp, scallops and lobster. Each comes with traditional miso soup (no spoons, just lift the bowl with both hands and sip) and sunomono, a small salad with vinegar dressing.
We started, though, with some first-rate sushi. Fortunately, we weren't put off by the thought of eating eel. Otherwise, we would have missed the firm, smoky unagi. Shake, silky smoked salmon, proved that rice can transport that fish just as well as a bagel. Maguro, thin strips of tuna, was subtly flavorful. Only the crunchy, orange-hued, flying-fish roe reminded us that Americans do not eat raw fish as naturally as Flipper. Mealtime started in earnest when the chef rolled up a cart bearing raw ingredients. In our case, the combo dinner's scallops and filet mignon (which my wife and I were splitting) were accompanied by piles of broccoli, mushrooms, sprouts, onions and shrimp. Then the chef switched on the spotlight. It's showtime. At Ayako, dinner works on every sense. Even the sense of touch is satisfied by the frosty beer glasses.
First the chef dealt us out dishes like cards and spooned in sauces. Then he unsheathed his knife from a holster on his hip, twirling it about like a cocky gunfighter. A few quick flashes sent shrimp and veggies sizzling picturesquely on the grill, the aroma wafting to the table's edge. At the next table, meanwhile, another chef disposed of shrimp tails by flipping them skyward with a spatula, executing a Michael Jordan 360-degree spin and catching them behind his back on an outstretched plate. The table of Japanese businessmen applauded furiously and took several pictures.
Soon the chef was piling the first round of food onto our plates, and those of three other people at the opposite end of the table. Unless you're a party of eight, you can expect to share a table with other diners. As I dug in, my worries about walking out to the tune of a growling stomach subsided. And now the chef was turning his attention to lots of huge, meaty scallops and a hunk of filet mignon. My confidence grew.
The performance includes liberally dousing the food with liquor and occasionally setting it afire, sending up a dramatic and crowd-pleasing wall of flame. The chef gaudily cut the meat into paper-thin slices, then whipped his weapon back into the holster like a sheriff who'd just gotten his man.
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.
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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