When I made a reservation for dinner at the Japanese Village Steak House on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, the hostess asked me a question that struck me as peculiar. "Is it a special occasion?" she wanted to know. "Why?" I thought but didn't say, in return. "Does it have to be? Doesn't anybody just have dinner anymore?"
In retrospect, maybe it is something of a customary query for this culinary beast. Because the restaurant consists only of teppanyaki tables -- the kind where you gather 'round a flat stainless steel or iron griddle and watch your dinner cooked in front of you by an intense, exquisitely sharp-tool-wielding chef who could double as a Navy SEAL -- it's a natural place for a group to want to dine. Tables seat eight, with a single large one that can accommodate 11, and most people who do reserve an entire table probably have a motive other than appeasing hunger on the mind -- i.e. birthday, anniversary, etc. Smaller parties, who don't necessarily have to make a reservation, are paired up at the communal tables and seated where space is available.
In our case, the question about a special occasion turned out to be both apt and ironic, and we didn't know exactly how to reply. Yes, we were looking for an eatery that could handle a large party, including young children, without unnecessary hassle. We also were hosting an out-of-town relative, namely my sister, Betsy. And finally, though "special occasion" doesn't quite fit semantically, we were indeed having an event: In an effort to keep up our spirits, we were holding a wake for a salient part of my husband's body, suddenly diagnosed with a malignant tumor, that we shall hereafter refer to as, for the sake of the squeamish, "Lefty." (Hence my absence from these pages the past few weeks.)
Good ol' Lefty. It seemed appropriate to trust our dining fate to a restaurant with an interior as cold as a specimen sample -- I suppose the frigid temperatures are necessary to counteract all those fired-up grills. There were those ambidextrous chefs who can slice lobster tails and whack zucchini sticks as deftly as a surgeon can remove unmentionables with a scalpel and suction. It also appeared wise to virtually stuff my poor spouse, whose surgery was scheduled for 2 p.m. the next day. He wasn't going to be allowed to consume anything after midnight. For him, bamboo under the fingernails is preferable to skipping breakfast, lunch, and midday snack; more worried about his stomach than his nether regions, he was determined to eat as much as he could.
This goal is easily attained at Japanese Village. If you order a complete dinner featuring poultry, steak, or shellfish -- the "special" offers all of them plus a lobster tail -- you begin with a clear broth pleasantly spiced with ginger and scallions, which helps negotiate the Arctic temperatures. After the grill is lighted (and the diner warms), the soup is replaced by a bowl of refrigerated iceberg, topped with shredded carrots, a tomato wedge or two, and a somewhat watery ginger dressing that is familiar to anyone who has ever dined in a Japanese-American restaurant.
While you sip and munch, the chef, who is less likely to be Japanese than Latino or Anglo, sets up his mise en place, arranging his ingredients, sauces, and tools in the order that he will need them. First up is fried rice, a wheelbarrow-size portion of white grains dumped on the griddle and occasionally kept from sticking to it with generous additions of butter, butter, and every once in a while a little more butter. While the rice is turning a comfortable brown, courtesy of all that, well, butter, thick julienned zucchini and rounds of white onions enter stage left and are put through their paces. In due time, these will be joined by a handful of bean sprouts, then placed on diners' plates next to the rice.
Prompted by the eye-batting of my daughter, who had seen a certain trick pulled at the teppanyaki restaurant in Epcot a few months ago, the chef here piled onion rings on top of each other, filled the center with oil, and set the mini-mountain on fire to make a "volcano." Not everyone is capable of this one; indeed, our particular toque-bearer, who polished his act from start to finish at a Miami-area Benihana, told us teppanyaki chefs can be in apprenticeship for up to two years. So if you have young'uns afraid of fire or you yourself are fond of, say, your eyebrows, you might want to keep volcano requests under wraps.
The other tricks, like the repartee, can seem rather tame if you've visited one too many of these operations. But novices can appreciate the gastronomic interpretation of the second half of Newton's first law, that of inertia: "a body in motion stays in motion." There's a lot of wrist music via the salt-and-pepper shakers, which keep clattering on the grill and in the belly of the chef's toque, where he tosses them for a grand finale. Knife and cleaver sometimes replicate the rhythms of finger cymbals or castanets.
All this busy chatter of utensils and speech is probably meant, along with entertainment, to divert the customer from the fact that nothing is really being done flavor-wise to the seafood, poultry, and meat. Like the rice, the main courses are virtually unflavored, seasoned with basics, sautéed, and then placed on your plate before you notice. One upside is that two soy-based dipping sauces are poured and placed between your plate and the grill, which helps the flavor of the meal but does little positive for the linens. Another factor in favor is that the chefs are knowledgeable about the cooking time required for the various items, ensuring succulence. They will also take into account dietary preferences or restrictions. Thus, kosher folks can enjoy an all-meat, no-shellfish kind of meal; likewise, people who are allergic to shellfish can inform the chef, who will cook scallops, shrimp, and lobster tail as the final dishes, avoiding contamination.
For a bit more flavor, consider ordering beef or chicken teriyaki-style, which comes premarinated and has a stronger presence. Upgrades from steak to filet mignon are available for an extra $2 per diner and can provide a more tender experience.
You can also make a meal out of several appetizer and à la carte menu items, such as the steaming gyoza (dumplings) or the layered leaves of delicate beef tataki. The owners of Japanese Village Steak House also run the original Japanese Village down the street, one of the older restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard. So you can be assured that the sushi chefs here have been as significantly trained as the teppanyaki techs. But don't let me speak for them -- allow the Trudy roll, a delicious combo of tuna, masago, and cucumber in a lightly vinegared sauce, or the caramelized eel, flaky but not bony, to do the talking.
Ice cream and remarkably grease-free tempura-wrapped bananas are included with complete dinners, bringing the courses up to about five or six and making a pilgrimage to Japanese Village more worthy of a tanka than a haiku. Not a good choice if you're trying to catch a show nearby at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts or make a movie. But sometimes it's nice to linger, especially if the next few hours offer little positive.
Which brings me back to poor Lefty, who quite ignorantly passed his sweet 16 never knowing he wouldn't make it to a slightly more bitter 36. Survived by his twin and roommate, Righty, his long-time partner, Shorty, and his two beautiful kids, Zoe and Remy, for which he was 50 percent responsible (or maybe 25 percent, given the odds and just how long that tumor might have been lingering), he died with the contentment that comes from a job well done. No doubt we will mourn his loss, which is why we had brought with us a cake inscribed with the sentiment: "Dear Lefty. We'll miss you. Rest in peace." I'm still a little baffled as to why the staff believed it was a birthday cake, though. And I don't quite get why they brought it to our table lit with a candle, singing loudly, and clanging utensils all the while. But perhaps they knew something I only suspected at the time (but have since happily confirmed) -- the forthcoming birth of a successful solo artist.
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