At Kabuki Japanese Restaurant, the drama is all in the food.

Kabuki, Unmasked 

At Kabuki Japanese Restaurant, the drama is all in the food.

In a more imaginative world, a Japanese restaurant named Kabuki -- for the traditional form of Japanese theater -- would actually be a dinner theater. Customers could dine on sushi, tempura and shabu-shabu and watch actors in stylized makeup grimace and growl at each other as they performed Kanjincho or the five-act drama Aoto-zoshi Hana No Nishikie. Who knows? After imbibing a few cups of hot saké or a couple of exotic cocktails, the complicated historical plots might seem as light and lively as Barefoot in the Park or The Odd Couple.

But the American Heartland Theater is on a whole different floor at the other end of Crown Center. At Kabuki, the only thing resembling entertainment is the make-your-own version: people-watching from the little patio area that looks out on the first-floor lobby or sharing a table with a group of chatty friends. There's certainly no fun in sitting at the confining sushi bar, where the white-jacketed chefs are as aloof as samurai warriors -- unless a blond bombshell pours herself into one of the low-slung chairs. This happened one night while I was trying out a spicy salmon roll and chatting with a coworker. A young Lana Turner look-alike sat down next to us and pored over the menu, oblivious to the trio of sushi makers (only one was Asian) behind the glass display case who had immediately turned into the Three Stooges.

Actually, that was dinner theater! If I count the unexpectedly theatrical moments during my three visits to the seventeen-year-old restaurant -- one of the city's oldest sushi joints -- there were some flashes of brilliant comedy and drama. Take, for example, the presentation of the hot towels at the beginning of a dinner with my friends Julia and Bob. The dimpled server, wrapped in a white-and-purple kimono, took out her tongs and handed each of us a scalding purple washcloth. We each dropped ours on the table at the same moment, howling in unison.

"I'll just leave them here," the server said, smiling sweetly. "You can use them if you like."

I wrapped my throbbing fingers around my glass of iced tea just as Bob asked the waitress if she had ever watched Martha Stewart's TV show. She nodded attentively, but her eyes glazed over (as did mine) when Bob launched into a monologue about the sticky rice one of Martha's guests had prepared on the show.

"Do you serve that kind of rice?" he asked.

"Oh yes!" she nodded. "We have rice."

I explained to Bob that sticky rice -- a mixture of water, rice vinegar and sugar folded into a pot of steamed rice -- is the basis for the Japanese delicacy known as sushi. For nigiri sushi, a strip of raw seafood lolls across a dollop of sticky rice; maki sushi is the popular "rolled" version, often with a sheet of nori (toasted seaweed) wrapped around the sticky rice. Bob stuck out his tongue: "I hate sushi."

Luckily for him, there were plenty of alternatives (i.e. nonfishy dishes) on the Kabuki menu, which is printed with color photographs of most of the featured fare. After the disconcerting behavior of the sushi chefs and the unpleasant hot-napkin experience, we were surprised to find that the kitchen staff actually knew what it was doing. Slices of tender Kansas City strip turned out to be expertly grilled and drizzled with a coyly sweet teriyaki sauce. That same sauce dressed up a grilled chicken breast, and both dishes were soothing options for diners who might find sushi and sukiyaki too exotic.

Not that sushi is any more a culinary oddity than, say, fried dill pickles or lobster mashed potatoes. It's in the refrigerated cases of most local grocery stores. In fact, during the last decade sushi has become such a part of pop culture that I keep waiting for McDonald's to offer its own version of the California roll -- that ubiquitous combination of crab, avocado and cucumber that even sushi haters are tempted to taste.

But Kabuki has a much better choice to lure sushi novices into the art of eating raw: a strikingly unsushi-looking roll called Honeymoon in Paradise, wrapped in a crinkled skin of lemony yellow dried-bean curd and filled with shrimp, cucumber, avocado, cool mango and sprigs of spicy radish sprouts. It arrives with a splash of shiny peanut sauce instead of a puddle of soy and a nose-twitching wasabi. Even Bob surprised us by sampling -- and liking! -- a slice of this elegantly composed roll. And Kabuki's Spiderman roll (which had its name long before the current hit movie) was a delectable combination of avocado, cucumber, radish sprouts and crispy-fried soft-shell crab wrapped in seaweed and sprinkled with garnet-red tobiko caviar. The crunch of the crab, the silky softness of the avocado and the salty burst from the caviar made for a few lush and sensual bites.

I had the same reaction to that other great sweet-and-salty Japanese innovation known as sukiyaki. The dish was hugely popular in America during the 1960s (Kyu Sakamoto even had a hit with a song of the same name), though it has grown passé in the decades since. Sukiyaki is best described as the Japanese version of beef stew. At Kabuki, a savory, amber-colored broth of sherry, soy, chopped onion and a dash of sugar arrives in a steaming iron pot. Alone, this broth is as restorative as a swig of saké, but treasures float beneath its bubbling surface: paper-thin slices of beef, crispy pieces of Chinese cabbage, clear cellophane noodles, thick tubes of wheat noodles, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. It becomes even more like a hearty stew if you order it ladled over a bowl of rice.

Keep eating and you won't have to dwell on the restaurant's interior, which could use a little makeup. Kabuki still boasts a lot of 1980s décor (smoky glass, acid-green walls, violet napkins), and its jungle of fake plants needs a good dusting. And what's the deal with the garland of holiday tinsel over the center area with the low tables and tatami mats?

"Oh, it's not that offensive," said my friend Julia as she dipped a tempura-battered slice of eggplant into a ceramic bowl of salty soy sauce. "After all, this is a restaurant in a shopping mall."

Many of Kabuki's patrons, still wearing their convention name tags, were obviously guests at the nearby hotels. On all my recent visits, there were several diners eating solo, barely visible behind a cluster of bamboo poles and the foliage of tropical "plants."

The fun of Kabuki is not to skulk in the shadows but to take a group of friends; sushi and tempura are designed for sharing (as is shabu-shabu, the Japanese version of fondue), which leads to a lot of camaraderie and laughter. However, one dish I would not suggest sharing -- or even ordering -- is the dessert creation known as tempura ice cream. Interesting in concept, it's a culinary flop: a frozen-solid ball of vanilla ice cream dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried. Within minutes, the airy batter turns rubbery and chewy, and it's flavorless anyway. You'll prefer to quickly pay the bill, head out to Crown Center's first floor and order something sweeter, tastier and cheaper at the Maggie Moo's shop.

Like native art forms, some ethnic dishes lose something in translation. At Kabuki, the finale is best eaten at another theater.

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