I wrongly assumed that Benihana was a hokey American take on Japanese steakhouses, basing my opinion on the famous, and un-Japanese, fried rice. But I married a girl who'd lived in Tokyo, and she assured me that most elements of Benihana are authentic, except the fried rice.
Furthermore, she loves the hibachi experience, and on holiday road trips, if we can't find Benihana, we'll search for a cheesy knockoff, usually run by people who've never seen the Land of the Rising Sun. Therefore, there was no doubt we'd visit Samurai Japanese Steak & Sushi when we spotted it in a former Cici's Pizza space a few months ago, and now we're regulars.
On a recent cool evening, the hibachi side of Samurai was packed with families from Bellaire and Meyerland. The restaurant is family-friendly, and the kids well-behaved, even the boy in a KISS shirt violating most of the chopstick DON'Ts. We asked J.T., our favorite chef, what was going on. "When it gets cold outside, people like to huddle around a hot hibachi," he observed.
Samurai is not a cheesy knockoff of Benihana. It's well-decorated, like a Japanese version of P.F. Chang's, and from the start, the soup with mushrooms and the salad with Japanese orange-colored dressing set a delicious tone. The staff seems less programmed than at the better-known chain, and more willing to be eccentric. One chef is a pyromaniac, and his fireballs send children fleeing and shrieking.
Fried Rice The chefs are accommodating, too. The secret of hibachi fried rice is garlic butter, and the guys will gladly slather in as much butter as you want. Another secret is to pour some of the mustard sauce into the rice, and they'll stop for a refill. The citrusy grilled shrimp are the best I've had, at any hibachi.
On this evening, as always, we ordered hibachi chicken with teriyaki. It comes with the standard sauteed squash and onions (does anyone ever eat all of the zucchini?), and we asked for extra teriyaki sauce and, of course, more garlic butter. I normally disdain bean sprouts, but J.T. added some fried ones to my plate, and changed my opinion of them.
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The best review of Samurai comes from my wife, who invariably compares any Japanese steakhouse to her first hibachi love. "Samurai is different from Benihana, but just as good."
The families cleared out of the hibachi side of Samurai early, but the bar and sushi half thrived with a completely different crowd. It's one of the most inviting lounges in the Bellaire area, but that's not what we come for.