Hibachi X, 1893 Central Ave., Albany, 869-9888, hibachixny.com. Serving lunch 11:30-3 Mon-Fri, dinner 4:30-10:30 Mon-Thu, 4:30-11 Fri, 11:30-11 Sat, noon-10 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: sushi and Japanese steakhouse fare
Entrée price range: $17 (five-course hibachi dinner) to $24 (weekend all-you-can-eat menu)
Ambiance: dark and glistening
It was inevitable, this melding of Japanese and American cuisine concepts. First it was the teppanyaki concept, the tableside grilling of meats and vegetables that was born in postwar Japan but effloresced when wrestling champ Rocky Aoki founded the Benihana chain in the United States in the early ’60s. Now such places are termed hibachi restaurants, and an impressive number of them have landed in the Capital Region over the past decade.
Then it was sushi, a rarefied delicacy that has passed from connoisseur to commoner, achieving mass-market status by landing near the fish counter in local supermarkets and, in largely fish-free form, in Chinese buffet restaurants. What we seek isn’t so much the color-and-flavor-muted slice of raw fish, but the busy compote, the cucumber-and-cream-cheese-enhanced roll, the contents of which have evolved into a free-for-all of spice and crunch.
The ultimate Americanization of such fare is to impose our favorite culinary pastime: gluttony. Nothing causes that Ford Explorer to skid to a stop faster than a roadside sign promising All You Can Eat.
And I am as keen as anyone in my pursuit of such places. Hibachi X takes the concept of Latham’s Sushi X (same owners) and adds the hibachi fare. You’re not asked to cruise any buffet aisles, fighting over the last of the General Tso’s. You’re ordering from your seat, in a civilized manner. You’ll be served as much as you ask for. You’re asked only not to over-order. A mild threat of charging you for any excess is in the air.
I visited Hibachi X in the company of what’s for me a new and sensible approach to dining with friends: dining with a Meetup group, a gathering of people who find one another at a website (meetup.com) that allows users to create online groups based on shared interests. The several groups in the Albany area include one for vegans and vegetarians, a paleo and primal diet group, a raw food group and groups dedicated to beer, wine, coffee and tea. More than 640 members are listed for the Sushi Meetup Group, although I was assured that the turnout of 50 for the Hibachi X trip was unusually high.
And its success requires some dedicated administrators. Joel Glickman, who hosted this event, was so busy checking people in and fielding their requests—then checking from table to table throughout the meal—that I feared he was getting nothing to eat.
“I’m getting plenty,” he said, laughing. “And I’m happy to see so many people. The nice thing about Meetup is that, unlike Facebook, it actually brings people out, in this case friends who want to eat sushi together. Also, our numbers give us some buying power, which is how we got a discount for this meal.”
We paid $20 apiece, tax and tip included; dinner on a Thursday is usually $23. We chose beforehand which of the two types of fare we wished. Given the number of guests, I was seated with seven other sushi-requesters at a teppanyaki table and, while we got no show, we had the clangs of knife upon spatula and bursts of onion-volcano flame nearby enough to make us feel completely entertained.
The menu offers appetizers that include decorative samples from the sushi bar, like a salmon-mango combo, baby octopus, and my choice, red snapper jalapeno, in which a pepper circlet decorated each of several thin snapper slices, served over ponzu. Other options to explore before settling in for sushi are seaweed or crab salad and miso or mushroom soup among the seven such starters, and the so-called kitchen appetizers include tempura (chicken, shrimp or vegetable), teriyaki (chicken, fish or tofu), grilled squid, calamari, dumplings and crab rangoon.
Sashimi and sushi are ordered per piece, although you can request more than one each round. Sashimi is a naked slice of uncooked fish, prized for its freshness and subtlety of flavor. Among the dozen offerings here are tuna, salmon, albacore, crab, squid and flying fish roe. I limited myself to the first two, which were an oasis of subdued wonderfulness. Sushi adds vinegared rice and the option of processed fish or other ingredients. The yellowtail and red snapper preparations I sampled were handsomely presented and flavor-balanced nicely with the rice.
If you want to bankrupt the place, keep piling on the sashimi. But they make money off folks like me, who can’t resist a trip into fancy roll territory. With so many to choose from and a limited appetite potential, I vicariously enjoyed the colorful array that descended on my tablemates, and learned that such presentations also make good social icebreakers as the compositions are compared and flavors discussed.
The snow white roll, for instance, combines tuna, surimi and avocado with crunchy tempura bits. Beside it, the eel avocado roll seemed almost unremarkable, which is the problem when you leave subtlety behind. So I topped it all with a mango sauce-topped super lobster roll, which had it all: seafood, the smooth texture of avocado, a layer of crunch, and the attractive redness of a colorful soybean wrapper.
The servers kept very good pace with our orders, slowing only slightly as still more customers streamed in. It’s a cheerful place where even a non-glutton will feel that it’s money well spent. And it must be making the neighborhood nervous: A sign in front of the adjacent Golden Corral buffet promises all-you-can eat wings. Nice try.