New Ginza lives up to its predecessor

Japanese steakhouse in Owings Mills also serves sushi, other specialties

Sunday Gourmet

January 26, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Whoever first thought up the concept of bringing Japanese steakhouses to middle America was a genius. The experience was weird enough to be fun -- Eating iceberg lettuce salads with chopsticks! Watching the hibachi chef twirl his knives! -- while still involving large amounts of steak, chicken, shrimp, lobster, butter, salt and drinks with little umbrellas in them.

It was a slippery slope. First, Americans were lured into trying some other Asian cooking besides pork fried rice. Next thing you know, we're eating raw fish layered with seaweed and rice and drinking sake. Now you can't open a Japanese steakhouse without also including a sushi bar, which the new Ginza in the Valley Centre -- a companion restaurant to the Ginza Japanese steakhouse in Cockeysville -- has done.

But the new restaurant hasn't stopped with a teppan yaki dining room (where the food is cooked while you watch) and a sushi bar. There's also a dining room where you can order food prepared in the kitchen, like tempura. There's a darkened karaoke bar with revolving colored spotlights. There's even a tatami room for private parties. (You sit on the floor around a low table for a more authentic dining experience.) In short, the new Ginza is one of the area's largest and most ambitious Japanese restaurants to date.

Like the first Ginza, the rooms of this one have a spare look, all blond wood furniture and knotty pine walls. It's certainly pleasant enough, but you won't come here for the decor.

Anyone who has done the hibachi grill thing before knows a lot of food is involved with teppan yaki dinners. Besides the meat, seafood and vegetables cooked at the table, you also get soup -- chicken broth with a mushroom slice or two floating artistically in it -- and an iceberg lettuce salad with a mayonnaisey dressing.

The salad is something the first person to open a Japanese steakhouse in this country must have thought all Americans had to have with dinner. Nobody since then has ever told restaurant owners otherwise.

If you have only the teppan yaki dinners, you'll miss some very good food at Ginza; but ordering appetizers at the hibachi grill is a bit awkward. It's hard to share, for one thing, because you're lined up in a row. And dishes tend to pile up because there's not much room. I'd suggest starting at a table in the sushi bar, then moving on to the grill when you've finished your first courses.

The sushi chef gave us tiny, complimentary plates of chopped yellowtail and gingered seaweed while we waited for our assortment of sparkling fresh sushi and maki rolls. As for our other first courses, tiny shrimp shumai (steamed dumplings) were delicate works of art. They shouldn't be missed. And people who have to have an egg roll will be happy with Ginza's fragile Japanese version.

Once seated at the teppan yaki table, I remembered what I liked about the first Ginza. It was the same here: The chef was a skillful showman but not obnoxious about it. (Some hibachi chefs, for instance, specialize in throwing food at the customers, who are supposed to catch it in their mouths. Amusing, but not my idea of a restful dinner.)

Our chef could flip a raw egg in the air with his spatula, seemingly indefinitely. Much as I enjoyed this in a disaster-waiting-to-happen sort of way, I wasn't sorry when he finally let it fall and splat on the grill. It then became part of the excellent fried rice. He could also slice a raw onion and make a volcano out of the onion rings, pouring in oil, which he then lit. And, of course, he did all the chopping of ingredients and twirling of utensils you'd expect at a Japanese steakhouse.

Among the four of us, we got to try just about everything on the teppan yaki menu.

If you feel like beef, the incredibly tender filet mignon -- not my first choice of steak usually -- is the way to go. There's something about this way of grilling that brings out the best in the meat.

Chicken cooked on the grill with a bit of teriyaki sauce also tasted better than any restaurant chicken has a right to.

Scallops were miraculously succulent. But to my mind, shrimp and the lobster didn't benefit from being grilled as much as the other ingredients did. The lobster chunks in particular got lost in the shuffle.

Dinners come with cabbage, zucchini and onions chopped and cooked on the grill. When they are on your plate with the meat and seafood -- well, it all looks kind of brown. Odd, when appearance is such an important part of Japanese cuisine.

Dinner ends happily with perfumed jasmine tea and beautifully carved oranges, but you can also have chocolate or green tea ice cream, or tempura-fried vanilla ice cream. The rest of our meal was served with handsome plates, heavy flatware (for those who don't want chopsticks), and generously sized wine glasses. But with our ice cream, for some reason, we got plastic teaspoons.

Ginza

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 9616 Reisterstown Road, Valley Centre, Owings Mills

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-8.95; main courses, $12.95-$33.95

Call: 410-363-4233

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **H; Poor: *

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