A Japanese restaurant with all the fixings

Entertaining chef, good grilled dishes and more await Hibachi diners

August 08, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Sometimes the only thing that seems to differentiate Baltimore's Japanese steakhouses is the hibachi chef's hand-eye coordination.

I'm not sure that's a good thing. I'd like to say it's the quality of the food. But for the record, Hibachi's hibachi chef gets an A plus for being entertaining without flipping food at me. Once we get to the point where guests are expected to catch shrimp in their mouths like seals, I'm outta there. Kids are the exception. Drunken college kids are not.

Our chef could do all the usual tricks -- balancing an egg on the edge of a spatula and then breaking it in one fluid motion, creating a volcano out of onion rings by lighting the oil inside -- but he could also flip a lemon wedge and have it land in his pocket (better his than mine) and flip an egg and have it land in his chef's hat.

What does this have to do with cooking your meal? Beats me, but it's mildly entertaining. Still, the escalation worries me. It used to be enough to watch someone skillfully chop the food and cook it on the grill. Where do they go from here?

There is one thing that sets apart the newest crop of steakhouses (Hibachi being the latest example) from the older generation (Nichi-Bei-Kai et al.). They are more casual and less expensive. Your kid will no longer have to wait for a birthday to eat here. In fact, one father and daughter pair seated at our table seemed to be regulars, as in once a week. This was their neighborhood restaurant.

Hibachi is more of an all-purpose Japanese restaurant than many steakhouses. There's a small dining area apart from the hibachi tables where you can get tempura, teriyaki, donburi and noodle dishes. The sushi list is also extensive, but that's pretty much standard for almost any Asian restaurant these days.

So what can I tell you that you don't already know if you've ever been to a Japanese steakhouse? Hibachi's dinners include a miso soup and a little iceberg lettuce salad. The chef cooks a fine fried rice on the grill, something you don't pay extra for. Dinners involve a couple of grilled shrimp as an appetizer and your choice of chicken, a couple of steaks or seafood. It's a given that this sort of cooking is kind to chicken and beef; they're never overcooked in my experience. If you want seafood, I recommend the scallops; the fast cooking holds in their moistness and sweet flavor particularly well.

Hibachi's vegetables (broccoli, squash, onions) aren't exactly exotic -- the traditional bean sprouts have been done away with -- but grilling agrees with them as well. You end up with a meal that is pretty healthy (lots of lean protein and with vegetables cooked quickly so their vitamins are preserved) and fresh tasting, although high in salt. Of course, when the chef is right in front of you, you can tell him to go easy with the shaker.

We snacked on a few a la carte appetizers while we waited for the chef to appear. The gyoza dumplings were plump and freshly fried and worked better than the heavily battered fried soft shell crab, cut in quarters and served with a "special sauce," mostly soy.

An avocado salad would have been super if it hadn't been made with iceberg; it was pretty good anyway. And just to get in the spirit of things, we needed at least one gaudy maki roll. The Dream Roll fit the bill, with shrimp, smoked salmon, cucumber and three different brightly colored roe.

This is the kind of food that demands a margarita, or so my friends thought. The combination wouldn't have occurred to me, but I went along. In an odd sort of way, the sweet, citrusy drink worked very well.

Desserts are the usual Asian-flavored ice creams (red bean, green tea, ginger), fried bananas and fried ice creams. I'll have another margarita, please. The sugar and alcohol content is about the same.

The people at Hibachi are extraordinarily nice. They are happy to see you and happy to keep piling your plate with food. True, they forgot my husband's chicken teriyaki dinner (he confused them by ordering it at the hibachi table), but he ate so much of everyone else's dinner, it was hard to feel much outrage once we realized it wasn't going to appear.

Hibachi

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 3755 Old Court Road, Pikesville

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; Entrees: $9.45-$27.95

Call: 410-580-9004

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

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