The Knife of the Party
Soon after a young Japanese immigrant named Rocky Aioki opened his first teppan-yaki steakhouse, Benihana of Tokyo, in New York City in 1964, he dubbed the then-novel concept “dinner theater.” And it was a show: Customers were seated around a shiny, white-hot grill, where they watched a specially trained chef cut and chop vegetables and meat, flip eggs and cooked shrimp, and juggle salt and pepper shakers like a circus performer.
The Benihana chain hasn’t made any inroads into Kansas City, but plenty of privately owned teppan-yaki (sometimes called hibachi) steak joints are doing good business here — the concept has experienced a mini-boom in the past few years. But if the settings — especially the Johnson County locations — have grown more glamorous, the performance behind every stainless-steel grill is pretty much the same: The chefs go through identical moves and utter tired jokes according to script — an egg spins and cracks on the grill and the chef blurts out, “Bad chicken!” And most customers still laugh on cue as if it were a requirement, like paying the bill.
The novelty of the two-month-old Suki Restaurant and Lounge is not in its chefs’ well-rehearsed routines but in the fact that an expensively mounted restaurant that’s half Japanese steakhouse and half traditional Chinese restaurant would have opened in a south Kansas City neighborhood restaurants have neglected for years. A restaurant with Suki’s glam factor hasn’t opened along this stretch (dominated by a KFC and a Dairy Queen on the other side of Wornall) for a long, long time.
Just around the corner from where the long-gone Cafe Nile specialized in rich Mediterranean dishes for many years, Suki is tucked between a pet clinic and a tax service in the Santa Fe Center. The shopping strip, which faces 85th Street, looks like most Kennedy-era architectural creations — made of brick and plateglass windows and wrapped around a big parking lot. The space Suki now occupies was, says owner David Su, “a Mexican bar kind of place.”
There’s still a bar in the center, dividing the purple-walled steakhouse room from the mauve-and-gray Chinese restaurant (at some point, Su hopes to add sushi to the operation). Suki’s Chinese half brings out all the standard Chinese-American dishes: orange beef and lemon chicken, moo-shu pork and shrimp lo mein, Happy Family Reunion and Triple Delight. It all comes out of the kitchen hot and fresh-tasting but not too spicy; even the peppery Szechwan beef is a little bland. The portions are beyond generous, but the Chinese dining room seems somber and even a shade depressing — things are louder and livelier over in the steakhouse dining room.
With six teppan-yaki grills, the show room is far more alluring — even during the lunch hour, when such featured chefs as Martin Tonster perform only an abbreviated version of the teppan-yaki show (“Come back at night,” Martin advised. “The show much better.”)
I thought it was only fair to bring my two goddaughters, ages 11 and 9, to Suki, since I flatly refuse to succumb to their choice of dinner theater: Chuck E. Cheese’s, where the noise of kids, the animatronic floorshow and the arcade games gives me an immediate migraine. I knew the food at the Japanese steakhouse might throw the children for a loop (one of the girls refuses to touch vegetables, let alone eat them), but at least the chef’s hijinks would be amusing.
I was right about that part. But they also found the communal experience of the meal to be totally alien. When we arrived, all but a few chairs around one of the blond wood counters were occupied. Everyone was laughing, smoking, drinking and conversing as if we had stumbled upon a private party.
“Do these people all know each other?” asked the 9-year-old.
As it happened, no. But this kind of dining, where the chef cooks everyone’s meal at about the same time, encourages a convivial atmosphere. Like passengers on a cruise ship, we soon found ourselves chatting with total strangers. I spent much of the meal trying to figure out who was with whom (and why) — that is, when I wasn’t cajoling the kids to take at least an exploratory sip from the plastic bowl of pale yellow Japanese onion soup (named for the bits of scallion floating on the surface; the soup actually tasted like bland chicken bouillon). Or taste a salad drenched in a red ginger dressing that the 11-year-old accurately pointed out “was the exact same color as the blood in Nightmare on Elm Street.”
The younger girl, a more adventurous eater than her sister, did taste the salad and announced: “Man, that stuff is strong.” I liked the gingery dressing, but judging by the other uneaten salads left sitting on the counter, I’d say the kid had the majority opinion.
Suki’s teppan-yaki dinners include the watery soup, the bracing salad, steamed rice and a crisp medley of grilled mushrooms, zucchini and onion. Fried rice, prepared in front of our eyes with chopped carrot, peas and grilled egg (“Bad chicken!”), costs a buck more but is well worth it, if only for the flashy preparation.
On a previous visit I had sampled the teriyaki chicken and shrimp combination, which turned out to be tender and flavorful. So on this outing I ordered chicken for one kid, steak for the other and filet mignon for me. Things were going swimmingly for a while — the girls loved the chef’s antics, especially the tower of onion rings that burst into a volcano of flames and his attempts to flip little grilled shrimp into the open mouths of eager diners (but with such limited success that I demurred; I was wearing a new shirt).
But when one lady ordered a lobster tail, the 11-year-old saw it and wanted one too.
“Eat your chicken,” I snapped, sounding just like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.
“I want lobster!” the child wailed, goaded on by the lobster tail’s owner, sitting on the other side of the grill, who kept lustily urging the chef to “put on more butter” from the huge block of yellow stuff (it turned out to be margarine) on his tray of oils and condiments. We all watched in fascination as the lobster tail popped out of its shell and sizzled in a puddle of “butter” and soy sauce, only to be chopped into fat, juicy pieces.
I refused to back down, and so did the child, who pushed away the plastic plate of chicken and sulked. Her younger sister shrewdly looked down at her plate, then mine and noted, “Your meat is better. Mine is tougher.”
She was right. Her little steak pieces were as chewy and stringy as a sword sheath, so I shared my filet with her, all the while giving her sister my most intimidating scowl. Finally I had the server box up the chicken. At that moment the chef flipped on a switch, sending powerful strobe lights flickering over the entire group for a grand finale. That cheered us all up.
On our way out the door, the girls agreed: “That place would be a lot better if it served pizza.”
Teppan-yaki-grilled pizza? Now, there’s an idea entertaining enough for Chuck E. Cheese’s.