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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

Teppan Cooking: Spectacle in Near-Classical Setting

September 27, 1990|MAX JACOBSON

Buena Park's new Tokyo Steak is a suavely masculine establishment, filled with a quiet crowd of Japanese businessmen who would look equally at home in Tokyo's Roppongi district, where good red meat, and practically anything else Western, is available at astronomical prices.

The restaurant features teppan cooking, which is done on a flat metal grill. This style of cooking gained popularity in Japan early in the century. It became wildly popular in this country about 20 years ago, in large part because of a chain called Benihana of Tokyo.

Tokyo Steak may strike you as a clone of Benihana; it isn't. The restaurant is charming and discreet. The square room has high ceilings and light gray wallpaper offset by red wooden slats. Two giant canvas murals depicting medieval samurai life, hand painted to resemble mock woodblock prints, add an almost classical air. The grills, with their glossy, overhanging hoods, are so spotless you can see your reflection in them.

You might want to relax before dinner at the sushi bar, which is simple and attractive, with a large selection of fresh fish prepared by an authentic Japanese sushi man. I mention nationality because the staff here is international. The hostess hails from Mexico, and our teppan chef one night turned out to be Thai.

When it comes time for dinner, you'll be seated around one of the large metal grills. A kimono-clad waitress, who almost certainly will be from Japan, will take your order. Then you will have to wait for the chef to make his entrance.

While you wait, the waitress will try to sell you some silly drinks (named banzai and geisha, adorned with little umbrellas) and a few a la carte appetizers. I recommend patience instead. The tempura--battered fish and vegetables--is leaden and greasy. Shrimp cocktail, a big hit in Japan, is no better than what you would get at a coffee shop.

But patience is handsomely rewarded. Eventually the chef comes over with a grand flourish and fires the grill, which makes a great big whoosh like a 747 when the gas jets are turned on. And by the time he has finished, he has made the best teppan food around.

First he tosses a few shrimp deftly onto the grill, dousing them with a garlic soy and scooping them onto your plate with a spatula. These complimentary shrimp appetizers are far better than any of the menu appetizers. They come with a rose pink, sweetly flavored mayonnaise, and are as fresh as can be. I would have been happy to make a meal of them.

Then the real show begins. Onions, mushrooms, zucchini and bean sprouts are thrown on the grill, all of them doused with dark sauces. Then comes the meat of your choice--filet mignon, New York steak, say, or chicken, scallops or lobster. Should you choose beef, as most people here do, just specify how you like it cooked and your wish will be granted. My meats were cooked exactly as I asked, every time I dined here.

The beef, particularly the filet mignon, is particularly wonderful. The chef dices it into little cubes that are so tender they practically melt when you pop them into your mouth. You can dip the cubes into the soy-based dipping sauce, if you like, but this meat is so good that it deserves to stand on its own.

But even if you don't want beef, there is plenty of choice here. Lemon chicken--chopped chicken sauteed with lemon and garlic and topped with toasted sesame seeds--is another good bet. It is a far cry from the sweet, battered lemon chicken served in Chinese restaurants. This chicken is pungent and spicy, without batter, and the grilling brings out the flavor of the meat surprisingly well. Eat it with the deep red, Korean-style chili paste that the chef will smear onto your plate if you ask him to.

The scallops are wonderfully fresh here, too, and go perfectly with a ginger dipping sauce. I didn't try either of the other two entrees. After the shrimp appetizer, the shrimp seemed redundant, and the lobster (served with filet mignon on a special dinner they call the Fuji) seemed rather expensive.

Tokyo Steak serves the grilled vegetables that accompany the meats in larger pieces than those that are served at Benihana, and all the natural essences are retained in the grilling process. They are just great. You are also offered carrot rice--a bowl of Japanese rice cooked in a chicken stock with little bits of grated carrot. It's soft and fluffy, which is more that I can say for rice I've had at Benihana.

What the restaurant needs now is a bigger crowd. Teppan rooms are more fun when they are busy, and things are a bit too quiet for comfort here. On the other hand, the quiet almost makes you think you are dining in Tokyo. Until you get the bill, of course. In Buena Park, you can still get a good piece of meat for considerably less than a hundred dollars.

Tokyo Steak is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $4.75 to $5.25. Complete dinners are $11.95 to $23.75.

TOKYO STEAK

6890 Beach Blvd., Buena Park.

(714) 994-2730.

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 10:30 p.m.

VISA/MC/AMEX.

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