Serving steak with Japanese sizzle

Nichi Bei Kai caters to all the senses with food, showy preparation

Restaurant profile

June 29, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Eating is fun at Nichi Bei Kai, a Japanese steakhouse in the Columbia Marketplace shopping center on Snowden River Parkway.

Instead of sitting at a private table waiting for service and trying to talk over the wall-mounted televisions, you're sitting with a group of up to 12 people, watching a chef slice and cook shrimp, steak, chicken and loads of vegetables.

There's the obligatory dollop of oil and a spark that gets things started with a 4-foot-tall tower of flame. That stops the kids from fidgeting as their eyes go wide and their hands shield their faces from the heat.

Then the chef pulls out his personal cutlery, sharpened to perfection, and starts slicing and cooking with such dexterity that the food and seasonings are literally flying through the air. You get to watch your food being prepared, and it's served to you at the table where it was cooked.

While waiting, those inclined often strike up conversations with fellow diners while others enjoy the sushi bar.

There are several private tables, too, and three tatami rooms, more traditional Japanese dining rooms named for the floor mats that are found in them.

Here, diners sit on the mats but not Japanese-style, which is often uncomfortable for Westerners, said Eric Hartman, 33, the manager of the family-owned business. Instead, there is a space in the floor under the table that allows patrons to sit in a Western-style posture.

Nichi Bei Kai, whose translation is Japanese American Association, has been in Columbia for 10 years, Hartman said - in sort of an impromptu international restaurant park clustered near the Supreme Court, a Columbia Association athletic facility. There's an Indian restaurant, two Chinese eating places and an Italian restaurant all within walking distance of one another. The restaurants are in contrast to the row of chain dining facilities at the nearby Snowden Square big-box shopping center.

Hartman, whose mother is part-owner of the restaurant, said the first Nichi Bei Kai was founded in the 1960s by the late Lanny Miyamoto.

At various times, there were Nichi Bei Kai restaurants in the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, in Indianapolis and in Naples, Fla. - in addition to the original in Lutherville, which is still open.

"They were all created as separate corporations. He would start them and remain as a partner," Hartman said. "The whole point is to provide a little glimpse into a different culture."

American tastes are served with much more meat than is eaten in Japan, and not every employee is ethnic Japanese. But the music, the simple decor and the method of preparing food do the trick for most.

"We accommodate American tastes with Japanese style," Hartman said.

Part of that style is the showy way that many of the chefs cook, effortlessly flicking their knives and slitting seafood, chicken or steak, flinging butter and serving a few morsels to taste.

"It's an art. Some are very showy, and some are very conservative," Hartman said.

The real key to success in the restaurant business isn't show, though, he said - it's the food.

Nichi Bei Kai

Where: Columbia Marketplace, 9400 Snowden River Parkway; 410-381-5800.

Hours: Closed Mondays; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50 to $8.50; entrees, $9.95 to $26.95.

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Diners Club.

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