High-energy dining for a young crowd

Restaurant: Hibachi Grill at Jillian's scores high on the fun meter, even if it's not haute cuisine.

Sunday Gourmet

January 21, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

So why is the restaurant critic of the Baltimore Sun laughing and holding a napkin in front of her face? Or perhaps the question is: Why is the chef throwing rice and shrimp at her? Maybe the answer seems self-evident. Probably any number of chefs would like to pelt me with food.

But no, it's not personal. The staff at Jillian's Hibachi Grill don't know who I am and wouldn't care if they did. The chefs throw food at everybody -- even Harold, a passerby who foolishly sticks his head into the dining room to see what's going on. (Just in case it isn't clear, your whole dinner isn't thrown at you; just some of the rice and the after-the-main-course shrimp.)

Of course, it's more artistic than throwing; the chefs flip the food. They also toss plastic bowls and spatulas and salt shakers in high spirals and catch them behind their backs. Or let them drop on the floor.

Tonight we're eating at the Hibachi Grill because it's the only one of the new entertainment and dining megaplex's eating places that takes reservations. The wait at Jillian's other restaurant, the Video Cafe, is often more than an hour. (Mostly because they don't have the staff to handle all the tables. The two times I've tried to eat there, a good part of the Video Cafe has been closed off for lack of waiters.)

Understand that I'm out of Jillian's demographics, of whom 90 percent are in the 21-44 age group, 60 percent are male, and 65 percent are single. And you know those crazy 44 year olds. They love being struck by grease-covered shrimp. Hey, you idiot. You're supposed to catch it in your mouth. If you hadn't had those four beers, you could have.

I do love classic rock and roll, and this is billed as a breakthrough new restaurant concept: a rock and roll hibachi grill. Plus the sound system is playing the Grateful Dead louder than you can possibly imagine when we walk in, which pleases my husband, so I'm happy on two counts. Our friend downs her cosmopolitan practically before the waitress sets it in front of her, so she's happy. Only my daughter, who is the right demographic, seems a little grumpy. "This is really loud," she keeps saying.

As faithful readers know, I'm the first to complain about restaurants that are loud so their customers will think they're high-energy. But the difference here is that the Hibachi Grill really is high-energy.

This is dining as food fight, truly a breakthrough new restaurant concept. But that's only the beginning.

Half the hibachi chefs look like rappers, and they keep up a constant stream of patter so the guests are hooting and shrieking with laughter.

They can and do sing a mean verse of "Hotel California" when it comes around on the sound system. (But get that chef a belt so he won't have to keep hitching up his oversized jeans while he's cooking.)

Have I mentioned the strobe lights? Periodically the overhead lights go out and the strobes start pulsing. It's sort of dining as disco, only with rice.

On those rare occasions when a customer catches food in his mouth, everybody at the table and sometimes everybody in the room cheers and claps.

The chef at the table behind us is a pretty girl in a whirly-top beanie. The hostess seats five college-age guys at her table, one of whom keeps wiggling his tongue in a suggestive way when she starts flipping rice and all of whom are going to need a designated driver by the time they leave. Only our table has a traditional-looking hibachi chef. He, by the way, used to work at Nichi Bei Kai in Lutherville.

And so, finally, to the food. With all these antics you can't expect haute cuisine, and surprise, you don't get it. The chefs start with decent ingredients: tender beef and chicken, fresh shrimp, scallops and halibut. They slice and dice and salt and sauce and squeeze lemons, and it's really the luck of the draw if you get your meat as you ordered it. (We didn't.)

Dinners, which aren't cheap, supposedly come with soup, salad and a shrimp "aftertizer." Some of the press materials say it's a six-course meal, but I don't see it. We never got soup (nobody did), and the shrimp "aftertizer" ended up on our clothes or on the floor. Even if you count the fried rice, which is cooked on the grill, and the mixed vegetables (broccoli, carrots, onions and the like -- not Chinese vegetables) as separate courses, I only come up with four.

As for atmosphere, rock and roll posters line the walls and the floor is pretty much littered with food and napkins and chopstick wrappers. And I can't honestly recommend the food; even the slice of "killer" chocolate cake we finish up with is fairly forgettable.

But we had a good time. I liked the way our chef drew up his chair and started talking to us when he finished cooking. And the young hostess and waitresses were really on top of things. If you're tired of maitre d's and servers who act as if the customer is lucky to be eating at their restaurant, you'll love the good-natured attitude of the Hibachi Grill's staff.

Here's what's wrong with the Sun's star system: There isn't a category for fun. Even my kid ended up having a good time after she finished picking the rice out of her hair.

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: Arundel Mills Mall

Hours: Dinner only, 7 days a week

Prices: Dinners, $12.99-$19.99

Call: 443-755-0113

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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