The Yoshiko Japanese Steakhouse fails to amuse.

Chop Phooey 

The Yoshiko Japanese Steakhouse fails to amuse.

My late grandmother -- the scandal of Richmond, Indiana -- had some issues with boredom. She was married either six or seven times, depending on which of her ex-husbands she could remember on the day you asked. And as a child of the twentieth century, she had watched the evolution of mass entertainment from vaudeville to VCRs, with silent films, talkies, radio and TV in between. She had a very unromantic view of all of them. One day, when we passed a long-vacant theater in her hometown, I asked if she missed the days of live variety theater, when the bill changed weekly with a series of different touring acts.

"Good God, no," she said. "After you had seen the dog act, the Irish tenor, the tap-dancing moppet and the acrobatic troupe who did all the same stunts as the acrobatic troupe from the previous week, you couldn't care less about going back for more. The movies didn't kill vaudeville, dear. Vaudeville killed vaudeville."

I must have inherited her low tolerance for ennui. That's one of the reasons I've decided I can no longer dine in Japanese steakhouses. I've seen the show -- the cracked eggs, the flaming volcano of onion rings, the corny jokes, the flying shrimp -- too many times. The only thing worse than feeling blasé in a Japanese steakhouse is having your teppan-yaki chef looking more bored than you are. The cuisine -- a limited menu of chopped meats typically drenched in teriyaki sauce -- doesn't really set off bells and whistles, either. So what is the draw, exactly?

Well, kids love the banging and clanging of the oversized salt shakers, the flipping of the spatulas, the flash of fire when the cooking oil ignites on the grill. Even if youngsters turn up their nose at the grilled squash, the fried rice or the soy-glazed chicken, they dig all the action, which has an edge of danger -- knives! flames! -- unlike those wimpy, animatronic characters at Chuck E. Cheese. As for adults, it's great for friends who want an amiable gathering place where conversation is nearly unnecessary: The noisy teppan-yaki antics dominate most of the meal, so it's almost like eating in front of a TV.

But I confess that I stifled more than one yawn the other night at the Yoshiko Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar in Parkville. It's certainly prettier than many of its contemporaries, decorated in an almost austere elegance without gaudy banners or accessories. The sushi bar, right across the foyer, is downright stunning, done up in polished wood with a gorgeously outfitted aquarium behind the bar. When it comes to pure visual style -- the black pottery; the rust-colored napkins; the tasteful light fixtures; the heavy, leatherette menu jackets -- Yoshiko wins points for class. But once you've tasted a chicken and steak combo at one teppan-yaki restaurant, you're not going to find any noticeable difference in flavor or preparation at another.

As with many teppan-yaki joints, the problem with Yoshiko isn't the overwhelming sameness to the menu and the show but rather the timing. Because the chef typically cooks more than two meals at once, small groups of diners -- Lou Jane and I at one meal -- are often forced to sit and wait until more customers arrive and all the seats around the grill are filled. It's a boardinghouse mentality: No one eats until everyone is at the table.

It's a clever way to sell appetizers and sushi before dinner, though at Yoshiko it takes so long to get both that I was chewing on my chopstick by the time the shrimp-tempura roll and the rainbow roll arrived. But at least at that meal, they did finally arrive.

Things had been far more frustrating on my first venture into the restaurant, accompanied by friends Bob, Joy and Kitty.

Yoshiko was packed that busy Friday night, with customers perched around all twelve of the dining room's shiny, steel grills. Things got off on a bad note when we were escorted to our communal grill and realized we'd be sharing the space with a bunch of unfriendly zombies. "They all look as if they have chopsticks stuck up their asses," whispered Joy, who looked enviously at a waitress carrying a giant, flaming cocktail ("The Volcano") across the room. "All the other tables are having more fun than we are."

It didn't help that our server was a poorly trained, stressed-out kid who spent more time apologizing for things the kitchen didn't have (including the "magic mushroom" appetizer, which we'd ordered only because it sounded psychedelic) than bringing food. The one appetizer we did get was hilariously awful: The "firecracker shrimp" was wrapped in wonton petals, flash-fried and served with a dipping sauce that tasted like melted orange marmalade. "They would have been better as table decorations than something to eat," Joy said.

I was intrigued by the five vegetarian items listed on the menu -- three have since been deleted from the new bill of fare -- so I ordered a soy-based "steak and shrimp" dinner. Our waiter, moon-faced Bobby, returned thirty minutes later and told me that the kitchen was out of it. "You want to try the fake sea bass?" he asked. I nixed the idea (wisely, as it turned out) and ordered chicken and steak. (I was still charged for the vegetarian dinner at the end of the night. Thanks, Bobby!)

The dinner prices include a watery miso soup, a tiny iceberg salad doused with tart ginger dressing, and green tea, which we never received. Our hunky chef, a native of Micronesia, wasn't exactly the Wayne Newton of the teppan-yaki grill, but he was personable enough going through the tired routine of flipping shakers, spinning eggs and chopping vegetables. We each ordered various combination dinners, and Bob was impressed that the beef in his Yoshiko Special (it also included chicken and shrimp) was a juicy slab of Kansas City strip instead of some tougher cut. But the harried server, the noise level in the dining room, and our insufferable tablemates turned him off. Not even a dessert of chalky, green-tea ice cream or fresh-tasting mango sorbet could cheer him up. "I never want to come back here again," he said.

He refused to return for my second visit, on a much quieter Wednesday night, with Lou Jane. She pronounced the place "attractive but cold," until she warmed herself up with a saketini that, she said, was "more sake than martini." I ordered hot tea, but it was slightly cooler than lukewarm.

This time we were seated with a happy group -- coworkers at Park College -- who actually spoke to us! The Matt Damon look-alike warned me away from the vegetarian sea bass: "I tried it on my last visit, and it smelled horrible and was one of the worst things I ever tasted."

I ordered a steak-and-shrimp deal instead, and Lou Jane chose one of the four soba-noodle offerings, made with Kansas City strip. "What kind of rice you want with that?" the waitress asked. Lou Jane's eyebrows shot up: "Rice with noodles?" She picked steamed rice, which arrived after she had finished dinner.

We did have some wonderful sushi -- including a mahogany-colored unagi atop vinegared rice -- but no one ever offered chopsticks. (I finally peeked under the grill and found them myself.) The chef did his little routine with forced frivolity, as though it were the only thing keeping him from being dragged in front of a firing squad. He was even slightly sadistic about flipping the shrimp at one of the men at the table.

"What can you say about these places?" Lou Jane said. "They're really all the same."

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