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Ask for the Jelly Roll Morton

September 20, 1998|Danny Feingold

It's an archetypal tale for the American century: A young chef in Japan sees Francis Ford Coppola's Harlem requiem "The Cotton Club" and falls in love with tap dance. He teaches himself some steps, practices every free moment and dreams of performing.

Only there's a twist to this story of pop-culture export. A dozen years later, the chef opens a restaurant in the shadow of Hollywood, serving up sushi, soba and hourly tap dance routines.

Sushi on Tap is lodged in a Studio City strip mall, but for Kiyo Sone, it might as well be Harlem in its glorious 1920s heyday. "This is the Cotton Club. Only we serve sushi," says Sone, a quiet 37-year-old.

The restaurant's design is decidedly contemporary, but certain embellishments suggest the theme of Sone's obsession: Handsome computer-generated portraits of tap-dancing immortals such as the Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire hang on the walls; a TV behind the sushi bar plays, nonstop, videotaped specials on tap--often with Japanese subtitles.

The dead giveaway, however, is the hardwood floor that, after less than a year, already bears the dents and scuff marks one expects in an aged dance studio. Cast members of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," who came by for Monday evening jam sessions and sashimi during the show's L.A. run, did some of the damage.

On most nights, the entertainment is provided by Sone and his Japanese waiters and chefs, all of whom now double as hoofers after an unorthodox work-training seminar. "We showed them the movie 'Tap,' " explains Sone. "Then my wife and I taught them the basic steps."

The staff/troupe draw from an ever-increasing repertoire of routines created for them by dancer/choreographer/customer Mark Mendonca of the noted Jazz Tap Ensemble. On a recent evening, Sone and one of his workers took customers by surprise, sliding down the runway and breaking into a vaudeville-style duet to Harry James' version of "When the Saints Come Marching In."

And it is, perhaps, only the beginning. "We want to do a bigger show," says Sone. "Flashy, flashy clothes, top hats like the Cotton Club."

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