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Restaurant projects class

Sushi, maki and ambience are first-rate

Sushi, maki and ambience are first-rate

September 16, 2007|by SAVORY SAM

The newest entry in Hagerstown's growing East Asian restaurant niche, Nikko Japanese Steak & Seafood, is set up to appeal to the more moneyed fans of Japanese-style food. And it's an impressive place.

But when I lay out big money for food, I expect a big-money experience. This restaurant is one-third of the way there. The atmosphere projects class, but my family and I found the food and service were shy of the excellence we expected after seeing the menu prices and the interior of the restaurant. Over the course of two visits, the Sams thoroughly enjoyed the sushi and maki - as good as we have ever had - but found the teppan dining experience uneven. Perhaps the restaurant is still trying to hit its stride.

The atmosphere, however, already projects class. In the bar, there's a 30-foot black granite bar on one side and a traditional, glass-fronted sushi bar on the other. Black granite, dark wood and low ceilings combine to give an air of sumptuous intimacy.

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Step beyond the sushi bar and into the spacious dining room, and it's clear that Nikko is primarily a teppan restaurant. (OK, a bit of vocabulary here. The large, flat, metal grill used at Japanese-style restaurants is a teppan - not the common misnomer, hibachi. A hibachi is a small, portable, outdoor grill.

In Nikko's dining room are more than a dozen teppans, each surrounded by seating for 10. The wood-tone flooring and pale walls are highlighted by dark wood pillars and black counters around the teppans.

The entire wait staff is Asian. Many speak good English; the bartender was particularly helpful. But our upbeat waitress, who introduced herself with a North American name, had a strong accent that made her almost completely unintelligible. She had difficulty understanding us, too.

I'm all in favor of an authentic cultural experience in an ethnic restaurant, but difficulty with basic communication is a problem for diners. Patrons should be able to ask questions and get comprehendable answers. Communication difficulties can lead to misunderstanding by diners and an unpleasant evening.

We ordered drinks, one appetizer - tempura-style vegetables - and our entrees, and we waited for the chef to appear. I ordered a premium sake. Standard-quality sake is served warm, but premium sake (known as ginjo-shu or ginjo sake) is best served slightly chilled. I received a cold bottle of sake and a tiny ceramic tumbler. The sake was refreshing and strong - 16 percent alcohol - so I sipped gently. It was quite good.

Most drinks on Nikko's menu are specialty mixed drinks. The wine list is short and undistinguished - Turning Leaf, Napa Ridge and Kendall-Jackson - and a bit overpriced at $3.95 to $6.95 per glass. Beers are similarly pricy.

Over two visits, the Savory Sams sampled a range of foods. Nikko calls itself a steak and seafood restaurant, so our steak snob ordered the filet mignon-and-scallop combo. The fish-eating vegetarians had a "hibachi" salmon steak and Nikko Vegetable Delight. The strict vegetarian ordered from the sushi bar - vegetable maki and shiitake maki. At one meal, I ordered two pieces of tuna sushi and a spicy yellowtail roll; at the other, the sushi sampler and the teppan-prepared chicken and shrimp.

The a-la-carte sushi menu was shorter and a bit pricier than those of other Japanese-style restaurants in Hagerstown. The teppan menu is shorter, too. Perhaps the kitchen is focusing on quality, not quantity.

Teppan chefs are showmen. As they prepare food, they perform tricks, crack jokes and interact with patrons. At a minimum, the food is prepared well and served in a timely manner. The best chefs combine food service with interactive entertainment.

We experienced three chefs over the course of our meals, two cooking for us and a third chef working nearby. Our first chef was low-key but capable. The food was fine, though his patter was limited and items arrived piecemeal. This was a problem. Part of the pleasure of eating at an Asian restaurant is the chance to mix meat, vegetables and rice or noodles in various combinations. Alas, this chef distributed rice alone, then, five minutes later, vegetables and, finally, after another wait, meat. It wasn't quite a meal-killer, but it was a bother.

Our second cook was straightforward. He simply heated the grill, cooked our food and served it promptly. He responded when we engaged him with questions. He didn't go through the typical teppan chef routine of juggling his fork and spatula, spinning an egg before cooking it with rice, building a blazing onion-ring volcano, making big gouts of flame on the teppan, flipping bits of shrimp for patrons to catch in their mouths, etc. That was fine by me. After seeing this routine two or three times, all that gets a little old, at least to me.

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