Page 2 of 3
"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.