Exit Japanese Steakhouse, Enter Japanese Steakhouse

DINING OUT

October 09, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,Sun Restaurant Critic

Kobe, the Belvedere, 1023 N. Charles St., (410) 685-0780, Major credit cards. Open Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch, Tuesdays to Sundays for dinner. No-smoking area: no. appetizers, $3.95- $5.95; entrees, $9.95-$21.95

**1/2

Once upon a time eating at the hibachi tables of Nichi Bei Kai was an exotic experience. That was pre-sushi, pre-dim sum -- before Baltimore had an Afghan restaurant and a couple of Persian restaurants and more Korean restaurants than you can count.

People still love the Japanese steakhouse food-as-theater concept, but I've noticed they talk about it with nostalgia. The food is no more exotic than, say, fajitas are.

The original Nichi Bei Kai thrived and expanded to a couple of different locations, including one in the Belvedere Hotel downtown (which never did as well as the restaurant in Lutherville). But long after the demise of other eating places in the Belvedere -- the John Eager Howard Room and the Owl Bar -- the Nichi Bei Kai in the lower level continued to hang on. It continued to hang on, in fact, long after the demise of the Belvedere as a hotel and its renovation as condos.

But now it's gone. I presume it simply couldn't survive on its lunch trade alone. (From the few times I ate there at night, I gathered people weren't coming downtown for hibachi dinners -- even though the food was good and there was parking at the Belvedere.)

So you want to open a restaurant, but you know a Japanese steakhouse didn't survive in this location. What's your next move?

Well, I personally wouldn't open another Japanese steakhouse vTC there, but that's just my opinion. It's certainly not the opinion of Vietnamese-born Xuyen Do, who was head chef at the Lutherville Nichi Bei Kai for 14 years. He's the owner and chef of the new Kobe in the lower level of the Belvedere.

He's renovated the dining rooms, but I don't know that you'll find them drastically different. Neutral colors, dark wood and tasteful appointments create a serene space that reminds me, not surprisingly, of the Lutherville steakhouse.

If you can, enter from Charles Street. Walking through the lower level of the once-grand Belvedere is mildly depressing; it's down at the heels and smells of mildew.

Once inside, you can eat at the sushi counter or at one of the teppan-yaki tables, where up to 12 guests can sit and watch their meals being cooked on the grill at the center. The cooking is the entertainment -- it's always done with lots of style -- and your food will be served immediately after it's cooked. On the minus side, you're stuck with whatever other guests are seated at your table. That's usually fine, but faithful readers will remember that on my last visit to a Japanese steakhouse we were seated with two cooing lovebirds.

That probably won't happen to you at Kobe, at least not at dinner time. For most of the evening we were the only customers, and when another group came in they were seated '' at another table.

If you've eaten at Nichi Bei Kai, you know the drill. (I hate to keep bringing up a competitor, but Mr. Do knows a winner when he sees it -- or at least I suppose that's why the two restaurants remind me so much of each other.) If you want grilled food, you order one of six dinners: The choices include beef, chicken, shrimp or scallops. Alas, the steaks, while good, aren't the famous Kobe beef from animals fed on rice, bean, rice bran and beer. (The preface to the menu whets your appetite for this "tender, butter marbled beef" by describing it in detail.) But the Delmonico steak and filet mignon we tried were certainly respectable.

You can also get combination dinners -- lobster and chicken, for instance. You don't really need extra food, because the dinners come with soup and salad, but there are first courses: shrimp and vegetable tempura in a crisp, grease-free batter; flavorful little gyoza dumplings; or various sushi and sashimi. My sushi expert sampled those last two and made comments like, "The eel is a little fatty" and "The salmon skin isn't as crisp as it should be." Those distinctions are a bit out of my league, but you couldn't complain about the freshness of the seafood.

I have to admit I don't find the grilled food that interesting, although it's always fun to watch the chef wielding his knives and acrobatically flipping a bit of shrimp on a diner's plate or whatever. Mr. Do is a master of this. But the meat and vegetables end up tasting pretty much the same, once they've all been cooked on the same grill, with much the same soy-based sauces on the side. There is one innovation at Kobe's: Mr. Do cooks fried rice on the grill -- that includes breaking an egg and flipping the shell away with his knives. Hot stuff.

With dinners comes a clear Japanese broth with a delicate slice of mushroom and onion floating in it and a good romaine and tomato salad with an appealing sesame-based dressing. I'd skip dessert. It consists of ice cream or Mrs. Pose's cakes, neither of which was as fresh as it should have been.

Next: Outback

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