BY PETE TITTL
There is just something fun about a teppan grill that charms youngsters.
Maybe it's because it distracts them, or removes some of the mystery about how that food that tastes so good ends up on their plate. Maybe they love the knives flying through the air. Or maybe it's just the onion ring volcano.
Based on our recent visit to Tokyo Garden, it's the volcano. We were seated at a table with a family celebrating dad's birthday, and the three boys could not have been better behaved. That's another plus to teppanyaki dining. As at the Basque restaurants where you dine family-style, you get to meet and talk with those around you. Grandma and Grandpa were there, up from LA, and they had all sorts of nice things to say about Bakersfield, particularly the Aera baseball field complex, the bike trail, Riverwalk park and more. I thought they were working for the Chamber of Commerce for a minute there.
Now I know that many restaurants in town offer the teppan experience, which the Benihana chain rode to nationwide fame. But for my money the best in town is Tokyo Garden, and only a fool would go here on a weekend night without reservations. We got the last two seats, and all six grills were humming. Since they turn it over in about an hour, it's not a drawn-out dining experience either. While you're waiting for your food, however, the smells in the air from the other grills can be torturous.
The entertainment value was above average, though readers tell me there's some guy at Shogun who is as charming as a standup performer.
Our chef botched the egg split early on in the process, but he created a heart out of the mound of rice and put a birthday candle in it for the celebration. He stuck his spatula under one corner and made it look like the heart was beating. (At the adjacent grill, where another birthday was being celebrated, the chef turned the rice into a bunny with the candle as his cigarette.)
Later, after the rice was done, he offered to flip filled bowls of it at anyone who could catch it. Those who took the challenge all succeeded without any grains on our lap.
The food was excellent from start to finish. The white rice has a few strands of carrot in it, a liberal spritz of soy sauce and not too much oil. Hard to resist finishing it before the rest of the food arrived, though my companion managed to control herself. She ordered the chicken and shrimp combo ($21) while I went big and ordered the filet mignon and lobster ($34). I liked that our chef, unlike the one next to him, started the vegetables before the protein sources. The zucchini/ onion/mushrooms/bean sprouts/carrots discs took a bit longer and all of it sort of came together in a well-timed feast at the end.
The lobster was a 7-ounce tail that he scored for better cooking, though drawn butter rather than the two typical sauces would've been better, if inauthentic. They are expert at the steaks, searing them on the outside to seal in the juices first, and the results were delectable.
I did not get my chef's first name but he also did a perfect job on my companion's shrimp.
Too often I've seen shrimp overcooked on a teppan, but these were perfectly done, still sweet and firm but not overcooked and hard. The chicken breast is less of a challenge, but as with the rice, the dose of soy sauce was perfect.
My only issue with everything was the scarce use of sesame seeds, which I've seen some teppan chefs sprinkle all over everything, particularly the rice. If that's important to you, be warned.
Service was solid throughout. The waitress made cheater chopsticks (paper and rubber band forming an insert) for the three boys and was efficient on water refills, working tirelessly in the background and whisking away the miso soup bowls and ginger salad dish.
One note: The bill includes an automatic 15 percent tip, so be aware of that when you're settling your tab.
The teppanyaki at Tokyo Garden can be recommended for a fine dining experience.