But by the 1990s, the chain was considered dullsville, and its then-owner, Texas-based Metromedia Restaurant Group, started updating the remaining restaurants by giving the Olde English concept a thoroughly modern makeover, with photo murals of snowy mountain ranges, Southwestern décor, and lighting fixtures made from animal horns. It wasn't such a great idea, either, and there are no Steak & Ale restaurants left in the metro area. (One remains in Springfield.) The decrepit hulk of one early restaurant stands empty at 7935 State Line. In Independence, a building of more recent vintage, designed to evoke a mountain cabin, has been revamped as a combination sushi bar and Japanese steakhouse called Samurai Chef.
But this is no ordinary teppan-yaki joint, oh no. It boasts, according to owner Vicky Pi, "the first smokeless Hibachi table in the state of Missouri." Instead of a noisy overhead hood, the combination table-grill devices at Samurai Chef suck up the smoke and cooking odors through an unobtrusive exhaust device perched at the side of the stainless-steel surface. It's all explained on the laminated cover of the Pepto-Bismol-pink menu -- how the new technology makes the Samurai Chef's "spectacular dinner presentations even more pleasant."
Spectacular is an overstatement, I'm afraid. The teppan-yaki chefs might carry themselves with the swagger of samurai warriors, wearing wide, leatherette belts bejeweled with colored glass stones -- more late Elvis than, say, Toshiro Mifune -- and sharp knives thrust into matching sheaths. But once the show gets going, it's the same old tired teppan-yaki vaudeville act, with "jokes" that have been repeated so frequently that the cooks grimace before the customers can. An egg splattered on the grill gets a half-hearted "bad egg" gag. Tiny grilled shrimp are tossed toward patrons with all of the enthusiasm of a bored exotic dancer doing her tenth pole dance of the night. Bad egg!
I don't fault the cooks. They're stuck performing a routine that's so familiar, most of them have lost the ability to breathe any novelty into it. Not all of the cooks, though. One night, dining with my friend Jen, we noticed that while our dimpled chef was gamely going through the motions of another teppan-yaki-show rerun, the much more attractive chef at the next table bubbled with energy and good humor, the Adam Sandler of Samurai Chef. Not that his jokes (or yolks, in the case of the "bad egg" routine) were any different, but at least he was having fun telling them.
Too bad the Samurai chefs can't do a little improvising; this restaurant is loaded with comic material, starting with the décor. Instead of giving the old Steak & Ale dining room a complete makeover, Vicky Pi has pretty much left it as is, adding an occasional Asian touch here and there. The splashing waterwheel in the center of the restaurant is a more Disneyesque addition. The former cocktail lounge, with its rustic, log-cabin flooring, is now a sushi bar.
On the night that Jen and I supped, we joined a big, happy family already gathered around the teppan-yaki table. They seemed quite impressed when Jen ordered a piña colada before dinner. At the next table, a couple of chubby Independence boys were dining by themselves. When they got up to leave, the larger of the two yanked up his blue jeans, but not before giving our table an unfettered view of the Grand Canyon in his flabby derriere.
"Welcome to Independence," Jen said, smiling and taking a sip of her cocktail. It was at that moment that I realized I was one of the few men in the dining room not wearing a tank top.
It's hard not to be a dining snob here. I mean, I have nothing against paper napkins, but at Samurai Chef, each pretty ceramic plate is accompanied with a paper towel ("I think it's Bounty," Jen said) artfully folded into a kind of origami hat.
On an earlier visit, I had brought along Bob, Lee and Randy, three friends with even haughtier restaurant standards. Randy had to fortify herself with a glass of sweet plum wine before she could even look at the menu.
"The prices are certainly reasonable," she said brightly. "A lobster dinner only costs $20."
I suggested that she order it and got a horrified look. "I think I'll just eat vegetables tonight," she said, gulping down the rest of the wine.
At that meal, we decided to share a California-roll appetizer, which our cheery, kimono-clad server, Desiree ("It's my first night!" she announced with the forced perkiness of a cruise director on the Titanic), brought to the table with two little dishes for soy sauce, enough for half our group. Crabmeat encrusted with sticky rice, the roll had a distinctly pungent flavor. "It tastes like fish bait," Bob said, sniffing after a tiny bite. We took discreet nibbles, then didn't touch the roll again. Much better was a plate of tempura-battered vegetables, which were greasy but tasty.
Because teppan-yaki-style dining is a communal affair, we shared our table with an attractive young couple who spent much more time talking on the cell phone than to each other. Our quartet didn't have that problem; Bob and Randy found Desiree vastly amusing, particularly her rapid-fire serving technique: "Who wants chopsticks? Chopsticks? Chopsticks?"
She thrust a small, red bowl in my direction and said, "It's soup."
That was an overstatement, too. It was a watery broth scattered with chopped scallions and boasting a single slice of lotus root and some mysterious, tentacled thing at the bottom of the brew that looked and tasted like canned onion rings. It was dreadful, so I was thrilled when the salad arrived: chopped iceberg lettuce doused in a piquant ginger dressing and garnished with a wedge of canned pear.
Finally Tony, our teppan-yaki guru, arrived to do his canned performance. I've seen enough of these dinner shows to know we were being cheated out of two highlights: the smoking-onion volcano and the strobe-light routine. The food was standard Japanese steakhouse fare: grilled bits of slightly chewy steak, moist chunks of chicken glazed in teriyaki sauce, and slices of grilled squash and onion. Randy made the mistake of agreeing to have her Flaming Shrimp appetizer doused in neon-yellow hollandaise sauce.
"I don't know what it is," she whispered, "but it's not hollandaise."
On my second visit, the night I brought Jen, we weren't even offered hollandaise. But we did get the smoking-onion volcano number and a pathetic little strobe-light experience. "Totally useless," Jen said.
I also discovered that Desiree was MIA. "She no longer works here," Vicky Pi said, smiling sweetly.
It was Melinda from Honolulu who waited on us that night, frequently running off to get the answers to our questions, such as the ingredients of a Mount Fuji cocktail. She returned to announce solemnly: rum and fruit juice.
We knew we were in trouble when that night's chef, Victor, laughed at our jokes. Jen stuck with a safe dinner bet, teriyaki steak, but I decided to get wild and order the $20 lobster tail, which was beautifully grilled but slathered with enough chopped garlic to frighten away the entire population of Transylvania. Before we had taken the last bite, Melinda shoved a little bowl of sherbet under our noses.
"But I want flaming ice cream," Jen said.
The technique for this uncomplicated but time-consuming dessert could use a lot more showmanship. The chef hovered over a slice of crumb-dipped pineapple for nearly ten minutes before finally plopping a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, dripping a honey-butter concoction on top, then dousing the whole thing with rum and setting it ablaze.
"It's the best thing about the dinner," Jen said, warning me that the ice cream was "very rummy."
I just have one thing to say: Bring back the salad bar and the wenches.