Maruha has theatrics, but not much flavor

At this Japanese steakhouse, the food that's cooked so dramatically on the tableside grill doesn't thrill the taste buds

  • Hibachi chef Ou Yang Xing prepares Hibachi Steak and Shrimp at Maruha Steakhouse and Sushi restaurant in Columbia.
Hibachi chef Ou Yang Xing prepares Hibachi Steak and Shrimp… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
May 16, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Maruha, a Japanese steakhouse, opened last year in Columbia's Hickory Ridge shopping center in space that used to be a Blockbuster. I'm glad someone told me that, because I did think it was strange when the waitress told me I had to …

I know there's a good video store-Japanese restaurant joke out there somewhere, maybe something about rewinding, but I just can't come up with it, and it's killing me.

I'm not saying I spent more time thinking about that than about my meal at Maruha. But close. Maruha features the kind the theatrical hibachi-style cooking first made famous by Benihana of New York almost 50 years ago. These places have gone in and out of fashion. Once they came back as nostalgia; then they came back and stayed.

This time, there's not much pretense about glamour or sophistication, much less inventive cuisine. This time, it's for families. I think the last time I went a place like this might have been the old Nichi Bei Kai in the Belvedere. Even then, I think it had all but shut down, perhaps even covered up, the old hibachi tables and had started to ride the big sushi wave.

So I came into Maruha a little rusty on the genre. But my tablemates, and everyone I've described the experience to, assure me that Maruha is fairly representative example. The biggest revelation for me — but, again, I'm told that everyone knows this — is that the food that's cooked so dramatically on the grill hardly has any flavor at all. It sure looks and sounds like it will taste good, but it doesn't. The grilled food is thoroughly bland, all of it — the filet mignon tastes like the scallops, the calamari like the chicken, and the unseasoned vegetables all taste like each other.

Apparently, nothing has been been marinated, and no spices of note are added while grilling, all presumably to appeal to the mildest palate possible. For the sake of flavor, everyone is given a soy-ginger sauce and the something yum-yum sauce, which is like Russian dressing. They don't help.

Maruha didn't invent this blandness, it's just perpetuating it. I think the only fair way to judge it, or maybe to talk about it, is on setting, service and theatrics, and my feelings here are mixed. I liked the charming and funny chef who worked our table. It's a moldy bag of tricks he's working from — the old egg-in-the-hat trick — but he seemed invested in making the experience fresh and personal. We lucked out with our communal tablemates, too, the kind of sweet, beautiful young couple that make everything around them seem nicer.

But on a slow night, the long row of unoccupied hibachi stations in Maruha's mammoth, mirthless dining room is off-putting. No restaurant feels right when it's all but empty, but the unbroken row of tables, where no chefs were entertaining any diners, felt eerie. It would be easy enough to screen off at least part of the unused section.

The room probably works just fine when it's full, though, and starts to take on the atmosphere of a kids' birthday party — which is really what it amounts to. But not a very cheap one. The idea apparently is that you'll be willing, for entertainment's sake, to pay about $5 more per entree than you otherwise would.

In addition to this large hibachi room and another smaller one that it presumably uses for private parties or overflow, Maruha has an area up front for alternative Japanese dining. There is a full sushi bar and a menu of standard teriyaki, tempura and noodle dishes. The dining area up here feels a little more comfortable, more for adults.

Based on the few appetizers we tried at our hibachi table, the food people eat in this space will be no worse and no better than what's served at the area's numberless Japanese restaurants, all of which have exactly the same menu — vegetable gyoza, beef negimaki, seared tuna and seaweed salad, all of it starting to look and taste a little prepackaged and prefabricated. We didn't try the sushi.

Maruha will ultimately succeed if it puts on a good enough show for people to come back for the occasional birthday party or cousins' dinner. I hope it does.

In fairness, Maruha might be the unwitting focus of my long-simmering frustration with Japanese restaurants. Occasionally, a place will crop up on the very low or high end that makes people happy, but the great middle experience has become as bland and dull as Szechuan food became 20 years ago.

And if we've decided to issue Japanese restaurants a hall pass when the class is discussing seasonal vegetables and transparent sourcing, that's fine by me. But you'd think even a volume-business place like Maruha should want to serve fresh asparagus in May instead of tired zucchini.

But kids are less likely to be turned off by bland zucchini and they'll probably love fried ice cream and fried bananas for dessert.

Maruha Japanese Steakhouse

Where: 6410 Freetown Road, Columbia

Contact: 410-531-3883,

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and dinner only on Sunday

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭

Appetizers: $3.50-$9

Entrees: $14.95-$31.95

[✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or uneven; ✭: Poor]

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