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.