Pacific Rimshot 

Oishi offers Japanese cooking as performance art

Last week I found myself enraptured by the quiet, methodical tableside cooking at KoBa, a Korean barbecue restaurant.

This, I pointedly noted, wasn't the flashy spectacle of the teppanyaki style of cooking, as popularized by the chain Benihana, where chefs toss knives and food through the air. It was simply delicious.

This week I found myself sitting in Oishi Japanese Sushi Bar and Steak House, waiting for a teppanyaki chef to flip a piece of grilled shrimp from his spatula into my mouth.

I thought it would be interesting, having made the distinction, to learn whether it held up under immediate scrutiny. Convenient, too: Oishi opened in the Chesterfield Valley, just down the street from KoBa, in late October.

The shrimp scored a direct hit. I barely had time to chew, though. The chef had another piece of shrimp loaded on his spatula and gestured for me to get ready.

Nothing but net.

My companions weren't so lucky. My fiancée ended up with shrimp in her lap. Wisely, she refused a second try. My friend got not one, but two pieces of shrimp tangled in her hair. She agreed to give the chef one more try. The shrimp ricocheted off the bridge of her glasses and landed on the floor.

The chef apologized. My friend didn't mind. All of us were laughing. If only our meals had been as entertaining as their preparation.

Teppanyaki literally refers to the process of grilling over an iron surface. Its origin as a distinct form of dining is in dispute. Some claim that teppanyaki is several centuries old, others that it began with a Japanese restaurant chain after World War II. Regardless, few Americans had heard of teppanyaki before the first Benihana opened in 1964.

At Oishi and other restaurants in the Benihana style, teppanyaki may as well refer to the script your chef follows as he cooks your meal: flipping shrimp into your mouth; making a "volcano" from stacked onion slices, filling it with oil and igniting an eruption; beating out a tattoo on the bottom of a salt shaker as he seasons your food and then flipping the shaker into the hollow space atop his toque.

The grill is the large center of your "table." You sit on one of three sides of the grill. It's meant to be a communal experience — each table sits about ten — but on this night all the other tables seemed occupied by large parties or families. There were numerous children underfoot, and if I were a parent I would probably be thankful for the many distractions provided by teppanyaki cuisine. The large fireball the chef inevitably ignites is good for quieting a rambunctious brood.

All of this is silly fun — up to a point. In my case that point came when I realized that unless I liberated my chopped lobster tail from the grill, it would be overcooked. I might have tried had I been certain the chef wasn't about to ignite another fireball.

I'd ordered the "Oishi Oishi" combination: lobster tail and filet mignon. Most of Oishi's teppanyaki menu is this straightforward. You choose a meat or seafood or a combination thereof. That night we tried three combinations: the Oishi Oishi, shrimp and scallops, and chicken and salmon.

By the time the lobster reached my plate, its texture was leathery, its flavor — in spite of all the butter the chef had slathered over it — more cooking oil, smoky and slightly acrid, than succulent meat. The filet fared better: The chef asked how I wanted it cooked, and it arrived medium-rare, with an emphasis on rare. It hadn't stayed on the grill long enough to develop much char, so the flavor was somewhat dull, a mellow mineral tang.

Still, I preferred the filet to most other dishes. My fiancée reported that her scallops were good, but I found her shrimp much too salty and as tough as the lobster. The chicken had very little flavor, and the salmon had that unpleasantly bitter toasty flavor that it and tuna get when overdone.

We each received two dipping sauces with our entrées: mustard with the same blunt heat as an overdose of wasabi, and a soy-based sauce with a strong ginger flavor. I found that the ginger sauce went nicely with the filet, but either sauce worked just as well with the shrimp, lobster, chicken and salmon. Then again, I would have preferred anything to their bland or overcooked flavors.

That's what was most frustrating about the teppanyaki experience. The chef clearly knew the proper cooking time for everything he served. He put the steak on the grill at the very end; he left the chicken on longer than the seafood. He separated the vegetables he grilled for each of us based on cooking time: carrots, zucchini and potato in one pile, mushrooms in another, bean sprouts in a third.

Yet after he served us an appetizer of grilled shrimp (from the same shrimp that would become my fiancée's entrée) in a thick lemon sauce — shrimp that were done — he kept the rest of the shrimp on the grill several minutes longer, moving them around, often for no other discernible reason than to have an excuse to flip his spatula from hand to hand. It's a triumph of style over substance — and science.

The original Oishi Restaurant, a sushi bar only, opened in Creve Coeur in 2002. The locations share a sushi menu. I had a sushi lunch at the Creve Coeur location, a sushi dinner in Chesterfield. (You can order sushi at the teppanyaki table, but if you want only sushi, you sit on the restaurant's other, more subdued side.)

The difference between sushi that is excellent and sushi that is merely good is difficult to describe. Each bite of an excellent piece of nigiri or sashimi should be a small revelation: This is what tuna or salmon or yellowtail or mackerel tastes like. The sushi at Oishi tasted very fresh, but there was nothing that startled me — except, on a few pieces of nigiri, too much wasabi packed in between fish and rice.

Best was a sashimi appetizer, especially the slice of purple maguro (tuna) with a clean flavor of ocean water. Most disappointing was the toro, the fatty tuna belly prized by sushi aficionados. The menu didn't specify which grade of toro this was; otoro is the best and by far the most expensive; at $4 for a piece of nigiri, I doubt this was otoro. At any rate, it didn't live up to its reputation for a luscious texture. Actually, it was kind of tough.

Oishi offers many of the sushi rolls that aren't a part of traditional Japanese cuisine but have been tailored for American tastes: "Spider" rolls with tempura-fried crab and pieces of asparagus; aptly named "Dynamite" rolls, an explosion of wasabi; the St. Louis roll, a bland filling of tuna, avocado and pickled radish.

Most notable was the futomaki. Futomaki is a generic term for the thicker Japanese rolls that feature two or three ingredients. Hereabouts futomaki nearly always contains as its main ingredient a chilled, omelet-like egg mixture. At Oishi pickled radish and cucumber are added, providing a sweet, clean flavor — like biting into a piece of ripe melon. Also excellent was a cup of miso soup, the best miso I've had recently. It carried a deeply smoky favor, and when I tried it before dinner at the Chesterfield location, I could imagine for a moment that I was standing on a Pacific shore in autumn, a pine forest at my back.

For just a moment. Then from the teppanyaki room came a loud cheer. Another fireball, I presume.

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