Laser lights in the lobby, piano player in the bar, sushi in martini glasses, Long Island iced tea in curvy glasses ... there's no shortage of details that define the experience at Tokyo Japanese Steak House, the sprawling new Asian-themed eatery in Green Hills. But let's face it, there's really only one question on everyone's mind, and the answer is: Yes, kids, there is an onion volcano.
Frankly, what else is there to tell about a dining experience in which a chef wearing a 2-foot-tall toque stacks the concentric rings of a sliced onion into a cone that erupts into a flaming Vesuvius in the middle of your table? Just ask any 5-year-old coming out of the restaurant, and that's what you'll hear: Onion volcano! Oh, and the chef threw an egg up in the air and cracked it on his spatula! And he threw a bowl of rice at Daddy but it didn't spill! And then he blew a train whistle! And then there was big fire! And ...
Hibachi-style dining is nothing new. Benihana popularized the performance-heavy teppanyaki genre in the U.S. in the '60s, and diners of a certain age consider hibachi virtually synonymous with high school prom nutrition. What's new about Tokyo Japanese Steak House is that it brings the soy-flavored drama of Japanese dinner theater to Green Hills diners, who previously had to venture toward downtown or to a donut community — such as Smyrna, where Tokyo Japanese Steak House has a sister location.
According to building permits, Tokyo's owners sprang for a $650,000 overhaul of the cavernous building that formerly housed La Paz. The space metamorphosed from a terra-cotta-and-turquoise-tinged pueblo to a lacquered bento box, with separate compartments for piano bar, traditional dining, hibachi grilling and a sushi bar. The centerpiece of the restaurant is an archipelago of grill tables with gleaming stainless steel range hoods hovering overhead.
Hibachi is indeed the reason to visit Tokyo Japanese Steak House, if indeed you're into that kind of thing. It's not for everyone. It's not for people who don't like dining with strangers, for one. To maximize the manpower of hibachi chefs, Tokyo's hosts consolidate separate parties at the eight-top grill tables. When a hapless trio of adults was seated with our adrenalized and ankle-biting crew of hibachi virgins, I asked one of our new dining partners if she had been aware of the risk of being seated with kids. She nodded gamely, leaving me to wonder: If this woman is prepared to pay upward of $20 to eat stir-fried chicken and rice at a table with my kids, might she perhaps charge a favorable hourly rate for babysitting?
Furthermore, dinner at Tokyo is not for people who want to push the culinary envelope with whimsical flavor combinations or explore the ever-changing seasonal bounty of local produce. When it comes to Japanese steak house cuisine, soy sauce is always in season. But for diners who enjoy a straightforward palette of grilled steak, seafood and chicken ("straight from Kroger," our chef joked), Tokyo puts on an admirable — and flamboyant — show.
Arriving at the table like a teppanyaki Mary Poppins, with kitchen cart in lieu of bottomless carpetbag, the chef set his mise en place with bottles of water, soy and oil, chopped vegetables, meats, rice, eggs, garlic and dipping sauces.
Adult meals open with a soothing clear broth, bobbing with mushrooms and strands of frizzled onion, and a salad of iceberg lettuce, carrot shreds and a zesty dressing of grated ginger. With the rough edge of hunger smoothed over, guests can sit back and watch the drama unfold. Act 1 is the preparation of fried rice with egg. Tension mounts with the grilling of the vegetables and death-defying igniting of the onion volcano. Action peaks with the sizzling of the proteins.
Shrimp were cooked delicately, and scallops were plump and bronzed with caramelized soy sauce. In hindsight we should have specified a medium-rare temperature for the salmon, instead of allowing it to reach the default level of doneness. If you're a person who agonizes over your order, don't take the decision too seriously — our chef deftly flicked samples of each item to every diner, with the notable exception of the lobster. When it comes to selecting among proteins, keep in mind that every diner gets an amuse-bouche of two grilled shrimp.
No sooner had our chef arrived with his bag of tricks and delighted our audience with his mad knife-and-spatula skills than he scraped the grill surface clean, holstered his knife and wheeled off to entertain some other family — or at least some other group of eight comprising a family and a few amiable strangers.
Hibachi lunch is available for about half the evening price, which makes for a more economical way to experience the spectacle, but in Tokyo's dark-stained wood-paneled rooms, the noontime meals feels a little somber. Emerging from the restaurant into the sunlight after lunch, we had the familiar disorienting sensation of exiting a theater after a matinee. Come to think of it, we had just seen a darn good show.
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