Japanese steakhouses

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Fiery theatrics and seared shrimp are attracting more and more diners to Japanese steakhouses, which are spreading like oil across a hot stainless steel grill.

In Columbus' not too distant past, there were roughly a half-dozen teppanyaki restaurants. That number has more than doubled in recent years, drawing more elaborate and stylish venues such as Kobe near Easton and national chains such as Benihana in Polaris.

Teppanyaki refers to the type of cuisine, taken from teppan (meaning iron plate) and yaki (meaning grilled). It is also known as hibachi in America.

The stage show, sizzling meats and seafood and steaming bowls of miso soup have captured the attention of people such as Holly Solomon of Gahanna.

"It's a family-friendly environment," she said. "There's always something exciting coming next. I love the food. My kids even eat it."

What once was considered an exotic or unusual dining experience has now become commonplace. In just the last couple of years, at least six hibachi grills have opened in the area.

It's not an inexpensive proposition, said John Scott, a partner in the two Genji restaurants. Many local Japanese steakhouses are located in large spaces, often standalone buildings. Factor in labor, grills and utilities (many grills run on gas heat) and costs can add up dramatically, he said. Scott said he expects a shakeout in the near future.

"I don't think (the scene) can support the number that's out there now," he said.

The setup is fairly simple: Several seats are placed around the grill, where trained chefs cook the meals and put on a show in the process.

Sabath Prak at Shi Chi near Dublin has been twirling his spatula, making onion volcanoes and flipping shrimp tails into his toque for 15 years. He said it took him six months to learn the trade before he had a final test in front of his mentor and the boss. Then he was able to flaunt his skills in front of a live audience.

"To cook for the customers instead of the boss, it was a lot of pressure for me," Prak said.

Sushi has become an increasing part of the bill of fare. Once offering only California rolls, many menus now offer designer rolls and nigiri. At Meijin in Westerville, customers are supping on the dragon, cherry blossom and the deep-fried house specialty roll.

Sushi chef Calvin Gao said he believes sushi adds to the atmosphere and broadens the appeal of the restaurant.

"Sushi and hibachi is a good combination," he said. "Some customers like sushi, some like the hibachi. You get more choices."

Kevin Moll, a restaurant consultant based in Colorado, said that in order to be successful, restaurants have to differentiate themselves from the crowd.

"Integrating a raw bar, an active bar scene and making the food something special are all good ideas," he said. "If they pick a special niche to target, and have a great name and logo, those things will help them, also."

One veteran restaurateur has developed a specialty product now open in the Tuttle area of Columbus. Fuji Express, an offshoot of the longstanding Fujiyama in Northland, uses a much smaller footprint - 2,000 square feet - than most local Japanese steakhouses and all the cooking is done in the dining room, but without the theater.

General manager Myung Kim said meals are cooked in about three minutes.

"A lot of people, they're in a hurry," she said. "During lunchtime, they're in a hurry. People really like it. The food is really good quality."

For more dining news, click to Gary Seman Jr.'s blog at ThisWeekNews.com/foodandwine