Saturday, March 7, 2009

Turning Japanese

In an act of charity on Thursday night, Noe invited me to dinner with him and his former lab mates from Pfizer. It turns out his friend Ryan had won a ton of money (over $1000) in a Super Bowl Squares pool and had finally received the cash and wanted to go out and celebrate. Being boys that like to eat a LOT, they picked Koto in Groton as the spot for their celebratory dinner.

Koto is a hibachi-style Japanese steakhouse in the vein of Bennihana (only less cheesy). While not quite as good as my personal favorite hibachi restaurant, Champion House (in Ann Arbor), Koto is a fine place to spend an evening.

The thing about hibachi dining is you are at the mercy of your tablemates and your chef. A hibachi table fits about ten people around one grill, so unless you are with a large party you are most likely going to end up sitting with strangers. Luckily, our tablemates were great - a nice and friendly but not overly chatty family with two well-behaved children. The chef is also a factor - hibachi restaurants are partially about entertainment, after all, and a boring chef can take something away from the experience since the chef is the one serving you, practically speaking (there is a waitress, but she's really only there to bring drinks and take the initial order so the chef knows what kind of meat to bring to the table).

We got a very outgoing and entertaining chef who was more than happy to oblige our wishes to see him throw knives, juggle eggs, and toss bits of food into our mouths (note: hibachi dining may not be for you if you are shy or self-conscious). The chefs at Koto are also fond of offering "tastes" of sake - and by "taste" I mean they squirt sake into your mouth until you can't swallow anymore. Strangely enough, boys seem to love this (go figure.)

Ryan drinking sake as Marc-Andre looks on in awe.

Although I am a wine drinker 70% of the time and a gin and tonic drinker the other 30% of the time, there is something about a Japanese steakhouse that compels me to order colorful drinks in frou-frou glasses with multiple fruit garnishes. My current favorite at Koto is the Mt. Fuji, a pleasant blend of rum and several fruit juices topped with club soda - fruity, but not cloyingly sweet. (Koto also has a selection of Japanese beers, hot and cold sake, as well as a traditional cocktail menu.)

Marc-Andre and Noe with fruity drinks; Ryan with a Japanese beer.

All hibachi meals start with soup and salad. I know this soup is probably loaded with MSG and I jsut don't care. I could drink that clear, onion-y broth with the scallions floating on top and the shaved mushrooms suspended in the liquid all day. But my real love at any Japanese restaurant is the ginger dressing they put on salads. While I tend to favor the chunky rather than creamy dressings, Koto's is the exception to the rule. It looks like Thousand Island, but it tastes like pure ginger.

Salad with ginger dressing;
soup with scallions and mushrooms.

As the soup and salad bowls are cleared, the fun begins. The chef rolls out his cart of meat and cooking implements and begins his show. Most chefs start by getting the vegetables - zucchini, squash, mushrooms, and onions - going first. While the veggies are grilling, he fries an egg and prepares the fried rice or noodles. Then comes the good part: the meat.

Noe can't resist sneaking a few bites of rice
while the rest of his meal is cooking.

Most Japanese steakhouses have combination meals (choices of various types of meat, seafood, and chicken) on their menu as well as straight steak, chicken, or seafood options. While I have a hard time resisting hibachi shrimp (the shrimp they use at Koto are large and extra-sweet), I went with steak and chicken (Marc-Andre promised me his two appetizer shrimp that come with every meal, so I was able to eat four shrimp anyway). Noe chose the same as me, while Marc-Andre chose steak and salmon and Ryan chose steak and lobster tail.

Our chef hard at work.

Another note: if the site of fairly large quantities of butter disturbs you, you may also want to steer clear of hibachi dining - butter is used liberally, as is salt, pepper, soy sauce, and sesame seeds.

I asked my steak to be cooked medium rare and it came out perfect. It was red in the very center, pink throughout, and had that nice sear that only a really hot grill or pan can give. The chicken, flavored with teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds, was moist and delicious. Koto gives you two sauces with your meal: a ginger sauce intended for seafood and a mustard sauce for chicken and steak. I ended up eating most of the steak sans sauce, and in all honesty, eating about half of the sauced portion with the ginger sauce (I think I am addicted to ginger).

A full plate: veggies, chicken, steak, rice.
My shrimp had already been consumed.
The brown sauce is ginger (seafood);
the yellow is mustard (steak/chicken).

We were much, much too full by the end of the meal to even consider dessert (although not too full for beers at Hanafin's at the St. Patrick's Day Parade fundraiser). Granted, if I had won a thousand dollars and wanted to go out to dinner, I probably would have chosen some place like Craftsteak in the casino...but if three boys want to take me out for hibachi, I'm game any day.

Full and happy!

1 comment:

Becky said...

Ack! Now I totally want to go to Champion House! They remodeled a year or two ago (this was news to me when we went there in the summer) and are now exclusively a Hibachi steakhouse, no more Chinese side to the restaurant. Fine by me!

I'm going to Pizza House tonight instead. Now...if only I liked pizza...