Though its menu is Japanese — or perhaps "Japanese-inspired" — there's nothing subtle about Katana Steakhouse. From the flashy tableside performances put on by knife-wielding chefs to the big and brassy flavors of the dishes, it's an American-oriented show. On the weekend nights I visited, all seats were filled and the only Asian faces were on the staff.
Here's the drill: for teppanyaki — "hibachi table cooking" — diners are seated around big cooking surfaces, each manned by an aproned and toqued Chinese chef. There are 10 chairs at each cooking station, so you'll end up sharing with others. The waitress takes your order for seafood (tuna, sea bass, scallops, etc.), meat or "Zen dinners" with vegetables, tofu or portobellos. Most often ordered are steak and lobster. Most extravagant: the yokozuna combination of lobster, scallops and filet mignon. ("Yokozuna" is the highest rank in sumo.)
Heaps of chopped vegetables — celery, mushrooms, squash and more — are arrayed around the sides of the surface, along with the ordered flesh. You're brought a cup of tasty broth with paper-thin mushrooms and fried onions, a salad of iceberg with a decent ginger dressing, and three juicy, smoky shrimp. The chef goes through some impressive banging and flipping of knives and gets to work on the fried rice ($3 extra), cracking an egg, chopping some more and adding soy sauce.
Part of the show is to deconstruct an onion: slicing it and then piling up the slices, one by one, into a perfectly fitting tower. Then it's filled with vodka and set aflame. Opa!
Each diner's selection is quickly sautéed, arranged on a plate with the vegetables and presented with three dipping sauces: a creamy one for the seafood, a hot mustard and a ginger. My tuna, prepared with sesame soy sauce, was cut into bite-size chunks and red-cool on the inside. In my companion's ginger pork, the ginger overshadowed any other possible flavors. All the dishes can be cooked with coconut curry sauce or teriyaki, which also seem likely to overwhelm.
At the end of the meal, the chef cleans up by flipping shrimp tails into his pocket, into a bowl behind his back, and into his toque — he doesn't even lean forward. "Thank you, guys," and it's over. The atmosphere's loud and the pace is brisk; you get the feeling that lingering over a second glass of wine would interfere with the business plan.
In addition to the main-attraction grills, diners can also sit at regular tables and order from the small plates menu, which has more of a fusion bent. The dishes are not that small; my friend and I ordered three plus a soup and dessert and were sated.
Again, neither subtlety nor complexity of flavors is the goal. Each dish is attractively presented and puts out one big taste, despite the multiplicity of components. Quintessentially Western ingredients are often used: black truffle oil, basil pesto lemon sauce. Beef tips, for example, are stir-fried in red wine and butter with garlic.
Diablo steamed pork dumplings feature big, friendly gyoza of a slide-y consistency, the pork juices neatly trapped inside, served with tomatoes and a sweet-hot sauce made from toogarashi, a Japanese red pepper. Thai chicken stew is made a bit sour, despite coconut milk, by the red curry it's cooked in, which includes lime leaves or zest. Coconut curry soup is respectable enough, but one-note. Another option is "Nu-Style Fried Chicken" with a ginger-garlic batter, served with garlic mayo!
Best was the "tapas fresh catch." Here you specify the fish, the cooking method ("baked, grilled, breaded or steamed" — assuming that breading is followed by the application of heat), the bedding (rice or vegetables) and the sauce. We chose a butter-garlic-sake sauce in which, predictably, the sake faded away; the result was nonetheless a delicious, very buttery piece of yellowtail, presented with an edible Dendrobium orchid on top and crisp asparagus and zucchini underneath. Other fish choices are ono (also called wahoo or butterfish), snapper and kajiki, a Pacific marlin.
Katana also offers affordable sushi and sashimi from the same menu as the Little Tree next door, which has the same owners.
The drinks list is an odd combination of Japanese beers (we liked a white ale with an austere flavor, Hitachino Nest), many sakes and cocktails with Japanese names and Western ingredients (for example, the Yuukan, or "bravery": rum, banana liqueur, pineapple, orange and cranberry juice; "brave" is not the adjective I would have applied).
At dessert time, Asian sensibility, or even Nu-Asian, mostly goes out the door. There are Japanese ice cream choices, including excellent ginger, red bean, green tea and mango, served with lichee fruit — and then cheesecake, carrot cake and chocolate cake.
To enjoy Katana, put aside your pose of cool and let yourself ooh and ah at the chefs' special effects.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.