The head sushi chef leans over his work station to hear my whispered request. "This young lady over here wants to try sushi for the first time," I explain. "What do you recommend?"
"Get the oyster tempura roll," he says, pointing to a sign on the wall.
My two teenage daughters, Katie (16) and Julia (14), are visiting me for spring break, and they've brought along a friend. Last year, on her first visit, their friend Mindy (17) said she didn't like seafood. On cross-examination, it turned out her fish-eating experiences consisted of fish sticks and the baked frozen cod topped with bread crumbs served at her elementary school's cafeteria. Last year, we went to Chinatown for a dim sum brunch and had her eating shrimp dumplings in no time. This year, my daughters are convinced she's ready for the high dive: They want to take Mindy out for sushi.
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Where to take a sushi virgin on her first date? I ruled out the serious Japanese sushi bars. I may love freshwater eel, flying fish roe and chirashi, an artistic presentation of several kinds of sashimi, but that stuff is probably too intense for somebody who last year wasn't even sure she liked fish. Then I thought of Taiko near the Galleria, a Benihana-style restaurant with a sushi bar and special menus for kids.
As soon as you walk in the door, you're struck by the theatricality of the high ceilings and spot lighting. A series of concentric rounded sculptural shapes hovers above the sushi bar, and there are huge expanses of blond and cherry wood along the entrance. Other walls are painted in contrasting shades of sea foam, salmon and cream.
One side of the restaurant is devoted to teppanyaki grill tables, while the sushi bar is on the other side. Ceramic "Japanese lucky cats" raise a paw in welcome from every counter. If you order one of the lobster specials, the crustacean comes to your table aboard a bright red three-foot-long Japanese junk. It's not Chuck E. Cheese's, but it's probably as close as a restaurant serving sushi is going to get.
Mindy is a little apprehensive when I order the oyster roll, but the waiter assures her she's going to love it. The big fat sushi roll arrives sliced into rounds that look like pinwheel cookies. Inside are tempura-fried oysters, avocado and snow-crab meat held together by a spiral of sturdy nori. The squish of briny hot oyster in crunchy tempura batter and the creamy ooze of cool avocado and rich lump crabmeat, combined with the chewiness of the tough seaweed wrapper, puts on a three-ring circus in your mouth. The plate is decorated with thick squiggles of chile ketchup and spicy mayonnaise, in which we dip the roll. The first-timer falls in love instantly.
But that doesn't mean she's easy. She hates the "spicy girl" roll, which has raw spicy salmon on the outside and tuna, black pepper and avocado inside. Nor is she terribly crazy about the standard rice-and-raw-fish version of sushi, which she tries with yellowtail, salmon and shrimp. The rest of her tablemates are only too happy to make the remaining offerings disappear. Though, in truth, the fish is not as sparkling-fresh as it might be.
"Are there two kinds of yellowtail?" one of my daughters asks.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because I usually like it a lot more than this," she observes of a dull chunk.
We also order a bento box lunch special. Mindy swoons for tempura shrimp on a stick liberally dunked in dipping sauce. And we all scarf the excellent sliced rare teriyaki beef, tasty sesame chicken and tempura vegetables, which are neatly stuffed in the other compartments. We enjoy our lunch, but Mindy wants to come back to Taiko sometime and eat at a teppanyaki table.
Benihana coined the term "eatertainment" to describe the concept: The chef prepares your dinner before your eyes while you're seated at a teppanyaki table; knife juggling, speed chopping and well-aimed flying shrimp turn the cooking into a performance. In the beginning, Benihana imported Japanese chefs and decorated their restaurants with sternly formal Japanese architectural elements and accessories. Taiko, and other such restaurants in Houston, have pirated the formula and taken the seriousness out of it (see "Beyond Benihana," June 21, 2000). None of the owners of these Japanese restaurants is Japanese, and neither is the clientele.
There is a lot of debate on the Internet about non-Japanese Japanese restaurants. Some people, including elderly Japanese-Americans, feel deceived when they discover the Japanese food they're eating was prepared by non-Japanese speakers.
But cooler heads, notably younger Japanese-Americans from California, point out the logic. Few second-generation Japanese-Americans want to work in restaurants. And since there is lots of mainstream demand for Japanese food, Asian immigrants -- particularly Koreans and Taiwanese -- bought successful Japanese restaurants in the United States and eventually started opening new ones. Japan occupied Taiwan for 50 years and Korea for 35, so both countries have long experience with the cuisine.
Granted, several decades of military occupation didn't instill much reverence. Which is probably why Taiwanese-owned restaurants like Taiko feel free to improvise, cut corners and borrow selectively from Japanese traditions. On the plus side, that means bolder flavors like the fried oyster sushi with hot chile ketchup. On the minus side, it means the sake comes from an automated sake-in-a-box dispenser they keep hidden in an alcove.
On our first visit, my daughters and I share an eight-seat teppanyaki table with a couple who seem to have just met. Katie giggles at the clumsy progression of the guy's arm from the back of the chair to the girl's shoulders. The goofy twirling knife and flaming-vegetable floor show provides the perfect distraction for blind dates, birthday parties and dinner with people you barely know. You don't have to talk while you're watching the flying onions.
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The man at our teppanyaki just arrived from Taiwan a few months ago, he tells us, as he juggles his spatulas and readies the grill for our dinner. He chops the vegetables with a loud flourish and flips them high in the air as he cooks. None of his tricks is new, but they're crowd-pleasers anyway.
We try the house Sapporo steak, a ten-ounce Certified Angus rib eye marinated in beer, then grilled and sliced on the teppanyaki. We also get an order of shrimp, which turns out to be exceptionally juicy. The entrées come with a watery miso soup, an overdressed salad, lots of tasty grilled vegetables and rice. Our first-date tablemates order yaki udon, a dish of noodles sautéed on the griddle with shrimp and vegetables. It looks wonderful. They also get an order of scallops, which they're too full to eat. So they kindly pass them to our end of the table, where they are immediately devoured. And I must say teppanyaki is a good cooking method for scallops. Too often they come out watery, but the hot steel griddle turns them sweet and nutty.
There's no point in discussing the authenticity of steaks and seafood cooked on the teppanyaki. The whole phenomenon is largely a Benihana invention. Just like Tex-Mex, this supposedly Japanese food is actually an adaptation of a cooking style foreign to American tastes. Which is also why it's so popular.
I wouldn't take a hard-core sushi enthusiast to Taiko. Nor would I recommend it for classical Japanese food. But such earnest pursuits were never the idea here anyway. This is the place to go for Japanese-lite, served with lots of diversions. Remember it when you've got a gang of kids to entertain, or when you want to avoid talking to your wife's religious aunt. It's also the perfect place to take sushi virgins for that first awkward raw-fish encounter.