Fire blazes, steel glints, and eggs tumble

At Sakura, entertainment is just part of the chef's showy cooking repertoire

Sunday Gourmet

April 20, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

All I knew about the new Sakura Japanese Steak and Seafood House was that it's located in a shopping center, which always lowers my expectations. So I was startled at how good looking it is -- the kind of good looks that only money, and lots of it, can buy.

When we arrived, it was early and the place was quiet. My husband and I sat at the center bar and waited for our guests. Sipping a glass of wine and staving off our hunger with sushi, we enjoyed the muted color scheme, richly polished woods and elegant appointments. We admired the two dining areas decorated with Japanese screens, kimonos and reproductions of serene watercolors of mountains and waterfalls.

Then the whole room exploded in boiling fat.

OK, not really. It just seemed that way. Part of the show at Sakura is that the hibachi chef starts by throwing oil on the grill and then setting it ablaze. It flames up with a great woosh. Naturally, everyone seated at the table shrieks (not to mention starts sweating if it's a warm evening, but I didn't realize that until I was seated at my own table).

The chef keeps the table stirred up with his show -- the flashing knives and spatulas -- and by flipping food at diners to catch in their mouths. This happens about one in four times. The rest goes on the floor.

He balances an egg on his chef's hat, then flips it onto the grill with a jerk of his head. It falls with a splat. He creates a flaming volcano out of onion rings. It's all the shenanigans you're used to from other teppanyaki restaurants like Nichi-Bei-Kai -- only on steroids. Maybe it's my imagination, but is this stuff escalating? Does each new chef have to come up with some never-before-seen trick to get the job?

I have one to suggest: How about not saying "I can't do that" when four diners explain they want him to split their orders, with each one getting a little of the chicken, beef and seafood. (Our chef finally agreed, but it took more arm-twisting than I thought was necessary.)

What I should have kept in mind is that Sakura is part of a chain of Japanese steakhouses -- I found this out when I opened the menu. That's where the money comes from to decorate it so prettily, and that's why the prices are lower than I expected. But it also means that the staff may not be equipped to handle blips in the routine like splitting orders.

There were a couple of other problems with the service, even though on the whole it was quite gracious. One of my guests asked for a napkin. The waitress brought her a pile of paper cocktail napkins and then rushed away before my guest could say she didn't have a cloth napkin, or for that matter a fork or chopsticks. Another problem: It seems to be a policy not to clear away dinner plates before bringing dessert. I don't like that.

As for the food itself, you know the drill. Or at least you do if you've eaten in one of the many teppanyaki restaurants that are springing up in the area. Dinners come with onion soup, actually canned chicken broth with a few snippets of green onion and a mushroom slice floating in it. (I guess management is afraid mainstream America isn't ready for miso.) There's also a small salad with a really ugly, faintly sweet-gingery dressing.

Things are a bit more cut-and-dried here than at some of our locally owned teppanyaki restaurants. There are no alternative dishes like tempura, for instance. Sakura does go out on a limb by offering chicken livers as one of three appetizers that come with dinner. The quick cooking on a grill leaves them tender and succulent. The other choices are sauteed mushrooms and shrimp. The fat, fast-cooked shrimp were the best of anything we tried; I recommend getting them for a main course.

I like the fact that Sakura calls itself a Japanese steak and seafood house. That's reflected in the menu, which offers salmon, shrimp, scallops and lobster dinners. In other words, you don't have to feel deprived if you don't eat beef. This kind of quick cooking is good for seafood; the least successful, though, was the salmon, which ended up being a bit dry.

Chicken with sesame seeds and Sakura's filet mignon are both worth ordering, as is the fried rice for an extra $1.50 -- if only to see the chef crack the egg by flipping it and letting it land on the edge of his spatula. The kernels of yellow corn in the fried rice are disconcerting, but there aren't many of them.

People familiar with this kind of restaurant know that vegetables, too, are cooked on the grill and then portioned out on your plate: zucchini, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts. The cook seasons them with soy, lemon juice and large pats of butter. This isn't diet food -- one reason it tastes good is that by the time you finish, you will have ingested large amounts of fat and salt.

If you have any room left, there is cheesecake or green tea ice cream for dessert. Children's servings of green tea ice cream come with whipped cream on top.

You will enjoy Sakura more if you know going in that, contrary to what the decor may suggest, this is a nice, kid-friendly chain restaurant with an under-12 children's menu. (For your sophisticated child, the menu includes a lobster dinner for $14.95.) Expect lots of hilarity, pyrotechnics and, of course, noise. The food isn't bad either.

Sakura

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 10040 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Hours: Dinner only Monday through Friday, from 2 p.m. on Saturday, from noon on Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$6.25; teppanyaki dinners, $10.95-$28.95

Call: 410-203-0755

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

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