For goodness’ Sake

Teppankyaki-style dining in Miamisburg

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Teppanyaki steak and salmon from Sake Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar

Arriving at Sake Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar near the Dayton Mall is like arriving at a fork in the road. One can choose the Washoku Dining Room or a Teppanyaki table. The dining room (Washoku means traditional cuisine) offers an experience similar to a typical, moderately priced, nice restaurant – in other words, highlighting a restrained Japanese aesthetic and distinctly untheatrical.

On the other hand, if you choose the Teppanyaki Table, you will experience something like a dinner show, with clattering spatulas, samurai moves and fire. For PIP (Palate In Progress), the choice was obvious. Fire and drama vs. sedate and no fire? Fire wins.

Sound Japanese? It’s only partly. It’s more of a hybrid American-Japanese, with a fairly recent history.

The word teppanyaki is derived from the Japanese teppan, which means iron plate, and yaki, which means grilled, broiled or fried. This style of cooking has been around for a while, but its current incarnation can be traced to 1945 at the Tokyo restaurant chain Misono. They introduced the idea of Western-influenced food cooked on a teppan. Though it was less popular with the Japanese themselves, it proved wildly popular with foreign tourists, particularly American GIs. Teppanyaki hit America with the 1964 New York opening of Benihana, which took the idea of performance to a new level. Benihana’s founder, the son of a restaurateur and a circus performer, understood that Americans flocked to see morsels of food sliced with razor-sharp precision, mid-air over the smoky aroma of a searing hot grill. They did.

Sake to me

PIP and I were greeted by a hostess and, choosing the road more traveled, seated at one of the horseshoe-shaped communal teppanyaki tables. The lighting was subdued, and there was top 40 music thumping in the background. A few tables were occupied in the adjacent dining room, and there were two other large groups at tables in the teppanyaki area. A family of three with a 12-year-old boy was already seated at our table when we arrived at close to 7:30 on a Thursday evening. Many people are hesitant to try this style of dining if they aren’t in a group. They shouldn’t be. Even if you are only a couple, the shared experience lends itself to easy socialization with those at the table.

We began by ordering appetizers, which appeared to be regarded as an imposition by our server. She insisted that we order our entrées as well before she would leave the table. This was our first clue that we would not be having a leisurely dinner. The sushi ranged from $2 to $2.50 per piece and $8.95 for a platter, which included three pieces and a roll. My tuna and yellowtail’s texture was soft and pleasant, but it was ice cold, rather than closer to room temperature, which would have allowed us to better experience the flavor of the fish. Sake’s Washoku dining room menu offers tempura ($12.95-$15.95), teriyaki ($13.95-$14.95), katsu ($13.95-$15.95) and udon ($13.95-$14.95). It is also possible to order a teppanyaki dinner and have it served to your table.

The teppanyaki menu features what Sake calls “Hibachi Dinners.” (While a hibachi is actually a grill with an open grate, the term is probably used because most Americans are familiar with it.) Diners can choose combinations of chicken, shrimp, scallops, steak, filet, salmon and lobster ranging from $14.95 to $26.95. All dinners are served with salad, miso soup, shrimp appetizer, vegetables and fried or white rice. Accompanying everything are two sauces: the tangy, light orange “Yummy” or “Yum Yum” sauce, and a darker ginger sauce flavored with soy and rice wine vinegar. These sauces worked equally well on everything and were hugely popular with our tablemates, refills liberally ladled out by our chef.

PIP ordered a combo of steak and salmon ($19.95), and I went with shrimp, scallops and steak ($25.95). Our appetizers were served practically at the same time as the soup and salad, and we rushed to get through everything. Thus began a meal that had similar pacing to that of a horserace.

Can’t get no SAKEsfaction

The salad was small, limited to a few bits of iceberg lettuce, with a pleasant ginger dressing. Some scallions and a lone mushroom slice floated in the salty miso broth. Our server practically snatched the dishes right from both us as we attempted to get the last bites. The line between brisk efficiency and aggressively rushed service was nowhere in sight by this point. The experience felt very much like a factory assembly line, with strict time limits to be followed for each phase of the meal.

The show began with the arrival of our chef. While he employed some impressively entertaining skills, such as creating a smoking volcano with stacked onion rings, the performance seemed a little lackluster and perfunctory. Usually, a chef makes a real effort to engage with diners, particularly with children, sometimes tossing bits of food in their mouths or catching shrimp tails in an apron pocket or chef’s hat. It’s also customary to tip the chef after he finishes if the performance is worthy, which is why most chefs really do try to make the experience as spectacular as possible.

Sizzle and smoke!

The food he prepared was tasty. Quick searing on a hot grill rendered the meats, vegetables and seafood savory and cooked perfectly to order. The least successful was PIP’s salmon – small, thin and a little fishy. Before we were done eating, our server presented us with the check, never offering coffee or dessert. I nearly inquired about ordering some, but it was apparent they wanted us to be finished. The bill for two, including one glass of wine and a soft drink, came to $73.30.

It was a little after 8 p.m. at this point, not quite 45 minutes after we arrived. PIP was under the impression they might have rushed us because the restaurant was closing for the night. I pointed out that the menu states they serve till 10 p.m., and there were no groups waiting for tables. Were that the case, the hurry would have been a lot less perplexing.

A teppanyaki dining experience should be about fun. Nothing is less comfortable than the feeling of being raced through a meal and practically shown the door. Hopefully, the management at Sake will consider this and slow things down to at least a trot.

Sake Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar is located at 2146 Miamisburg-Centerville Road. For more information, please call 937.435.7882 or visit sakejapanesesteakhouse.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Paula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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