Olivia Dish

Out of Teppan, Into the Fire

In Florida, Restaurant on January 22, 2011 at 11:00 pm
Onion volcano

A teppanyaki standard-the onion volcano

“You know it’s bad when we’re excited to eat at a Japanese steakhouse.”

My colleague, Honey Pannacotta, had summed up the situation perfectly. We were on assignment in Orlando, Florida, based in a hotel across from the entrance to Universal Studios. The work had been grueling. We were grateful for any respite, any small comfort. Even a Japanese steakhouse.

The restaurant was chilly, so we asked for a table in a warm spot. The hostess took us literally. We were seated ringside, around a giant hot griddle.

Honey is a former Food Network host who has eaten at many of the nation’s best restaurants. She’s also traveled quite a bit of the world. “Have you ever been to one of these before?” I asked her.

“Once when my daughter was young. How about you?”

I had, when I was a very young 22. A boy took me there on a date. I was appalled.

But tonight, more mature and secure, I was looking forward to some silliness and stir fried vegetables. I hadn’t seen many vegetables in the last 72 hours. And with luck, perhaps there would be a gong.

vegetable stir fry

Zucchini, not very Japanese, but very Japanese steakhouse

Right away, we were treated to what I suspected is the standard set of tricks: a stack of onion slices, their centers removed, then filled with oil and–whoosh–set on fire.  Eggs tossed and expertly cracked when caught on the edge of a spatula. Shrimp tails flipped through the air, into the chef’s pocket. I applauded. It was corny, but it was also a great release. I was having fun.

I was also curious about Japanese steakhouses and if there was anything even the least bit Japanese about them. Honey had no idea. A little research has turned up some information: this style of cooking is called teppanyaki. In Japan, teppanyaki is food cooked on an iron plate. Cooking western food on a teppan actually originated in Japan in the 1940s, but the cuisine was more popular with foreigners than with Japanese.  Even back then, the chefs were using the onion volcano as a highlight of their acts.

Benihana got things rolling in the United States, with an emphasis on the kind of tricks we watched at our table. It was definitely a dinner show–but then, that’s one reason people like to go, right?

hinged chopsticks

Beginner chopsticks

It’s also Asian made easy–familiar ingredients and chopsticks with training wheels (well, actually with rubber bands and a hinge, making them easier to use).

But what about the food?

Ours was not bad. We both had shrimp that was a bit overcooked but fine. The stir fried vegetables were just what we wanted, but the meal was also odd. First, once you’d placed an order, there was no changing–of your order or of your seats. Honey had engaged a lovely Italian man in conversation.  He was seated to her right, but she had him sit between us before we placed our orders. Then when some gyoza arrived that we planned to share, Honey asked him to move back to his original seat. Our waitress was not happy–but our chef, a lovely man from South America, managed to handle the change with no problem.

gyoza

Honey Pannacotta sharing a plate of gyoza with me.

There’s a lot of food coming at you. It’s served as soon as it’s cooked, so the timing is odd. Those of us who ordered seafood got our main dish right away. Those who ordered beef and chicken had to wait and wait.  For future reference, the surf and turf options on the menu might be the best way to beat this.

The most troubling part of the dinner was not the flying knives nor the amount of fat and soy sauce (plenty) that was used at every stage.  It was the cleanup of the hot griddle table while we were still digesting our food. A noxious steam emanated from the dish cloths; it smelled like a muggy wet mop and cheap cleaning fluid. Honey and I both thought we might be sick.

Gong

You can see a bit of the gong, on the left, and of course, the flaming cupcake on the right.

Once that subsided, we were once again happy customers, discussing how it would be fun to have a giant griddle surrounded by a table at home. I wondered if I could master the knife tricks. I vowed to myself to learn to toss and catch an egg on the edge of a spatula.

All that inspired, no doubt, by the fleeting fancy that comes with having a giggling good time. No, I do not care to eat at a Japanese steakhouse frequently but on this night, in this place, I’m very glad I did.  And yes, since there was a birthday girl among us,  there was a flaming cupcake–and a gong.

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