Five o'clock on a Saturday night is usually a time for servers to polish their stations and stock up for the evening. Not Kobe. When we walked in, four of the seven teppanyaki grills were already full, with captive audiences of eight anticipating dinner and a show.
Anyone who has been to Benihana's is familiar with the setup: The order is taken, a cart laden with raw ingredients wheeled out and a practiced (one would hope) chef proceeds to juggle knives and attempt to fling food off a large griddle into diners' mouths.
The atmosphere in Kobe was relaxed, yet party-like. Several children enjoyed the freedom of being loud while their parents provided them with entertainment that didn't involve digitization. Chefs in brightly colored kerchiefs and toques worked their tables with flair to spare.
We were the first to sit at our grill-top and a server immediately took our drink orders. Besides the obligatory egg rolls ($4.95) and gyoza ($6.95), the appetizer list included fresh alternatives such as beef sashimi ($10.95) and grilled shrimp with scallops ($8.95).
Kobe also has a sushi bar, which offers octopus salad ($10.95) and various rolls. The tiger eye roll ($11.95) with deep fried scallops, tobiko and scallion sounded like a winner, as did the Kobe roll ($15.95) with a fisherman's catch of tuna, salmon, hamachi and whitefish.
Entrees from the grill can be ordered singly, like Kobe steak ($22.95), or in combinations, like chicken and lobster ($33.95). All dinners come with soup, salad, shrimp and vegetable appetizers, steamed rice and a house dessert.
We ordered bacon-wrapped scallops ($9.95), a kalbi (short ribs) dinner ($23.95) and a filet dinner ($23.95). I wrestled with the bacon on the scallops with my ill-suited chopsticks, then gave up and resorted to using my fingers. The scallops were deliciously sweet and cooked on the rare side. The bacon were their Mr. Right; protective of their delicacy, complementary and hot.
We didn't have long to wait until a family of four sat down in our communal dining area. Soon after, the chef wheeled his cart of accoutrements to the table and the show began in earnest. He introduced himself as Toyota and asked for temperatures on the steaks.
The woman across from me requested medium-well and Toyota replied with, "Great, come back tomorrow." Already I liked this guy.
He began to pile food on the grill, somehow finding time to season and sauce in between the sleights of hand.
It was like watching a drummer, a carnie and sidewalk con artist all at once. At one point, he hit my fiance Jeff in the face with a hot shrimp. To be fair, it was Jeff's fault; the guy next to him caught one like a trained seal.
My kalbi portion was more than generous and tasted of sweet soy marinade.
Jeff's filet was perfectly cooked, tender and went well with the ginger and mustard sauces provided. All of the sides were icing on the Kobe cake.
Owner Ki Sun was eager to show off her restaurant.
"We are opening up a wine bar and creating a fine Japanese menu," Sun said. By March, all four corners of her Kobe kingdom will offer something different; teppanyaki, sushi, wine and higher-end cuisine.
My lunchtime visit to the all-you-can-eat buffet ($12.95) was an opportunity to sample everything. The sushi was made fresh before my eyes and tasted like it. The rainbow roll and crunch roll topped with avocado were my favorites.
The teppanyaki entrees included teriyaki beef, shrimp and chicken along with noodles, rice, egg rolls and sautéed vegetables.
As before, the flavors were brought out by the grill. The egg rolls were so good -- perfectly meaty and crunchy --that I had to resist the urge to grab some more on the way out.
While Benihana is a similar experience, Kobe's quality of food is superior, especially in the sushi category. And as an Alaskan, I make a point to support local businesses.
Kobe appeals to the kid in all of us that wants to be wowed while still fulfilling our adult desire for good food. When that guy caught the shrimp in his mouth, everyone at the table burst into spontaneous applause. Food tastes better with flair.
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Food with flair