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Ellen Descisciolo

Far Flung Food
By B.A. Nilsson

Ta-Ke Restaurant
500 Northern Blvd., Albany, 465-5511. Serving daily noon-10:30. AE, MC, V.

Food: * * * ˝
Service: Attentive

Ambience: Theatrical

When it hit New York in 1964 in the form of the first Benihana restaurant, the teppanyaki style of Japanese cuisine was presented as ancient enough to be shrouded in the mists of antiquity. A fast-heating grilltop, called a teppan, acts like a flat wok, quickly searing whatever meat or vegetable hits its surface.

Founded by former boxer Rocky Aoki, the Benihana franchise eventually spread across this country, into Europe and even back into Japan. When and where did it begin? According to Omaha’s Kobe Steakhouse, the “art of Teppanyaki cooking has been performed since the 1900s.” Benihana declares it to have a 200 year history: “Traditionally, these meals were prepared on a small grill by families, however it has developed into a highly refined and beautiful form of expression, characterized by an intricate combination of presentation and knife skills.”

A restaurant called Misano in Tokyo’s West Shinjuku section claims to have originated teppanyaki in 1945.

Whatever its origin—and it seems to be aimed squarely at Western tourists, here or abroad—it features what’s usually termed a hibachi table with the cooktop in its center, at which a chef-performer demonstrates that knife artistry with a few other surprises, even as your meal gets a quick sauté before your eyes.

For many years it was the mainstay of but one area restaurant; in the last few years several more have joined it, proving once again that the Capital Region remains uniquely enthusiastic about taking up fads that have long since faded from the rest of the country.

Ta-Ke Restaurant occupies a building that hosted several short-lived eateries in earlier years, although with a big medical center nearby you’d expect an easy road to success. Perhaps Ta-Ke (the name refers to bamboo) has found its niche.

Having a good sushi bar certainly helps. Although we chose a hibachi table—we had a need that night for such entertainment—an order of tuna-filled tekka maki ($10) certainly imparted the flavor that makes the combo of raw fish and vinegared rice so satisfying, even if the pieces were ragged enough to suggest that the roll had been sliced in haste.

I chose not to explore the handful of Korean dishes at the back of the menu, including the popular bulgogi, a spicy beef dish. I have a recent enough memory of a stunning meal at a Korean restaurant in Manhattan that I didn’t want to compare what surely would be a humbler option.

The reality of daily life had intruded. I had a cranky child with me who needed cheering, and the teppanyaki acrobatics would buy me some peace.

Here’s how it works: You’re seated at a large wooden table with a griddle in its center and an exhaust hood above. As the griddle heats, you narrow your choice: chicken ($14), thin-cut sirloin (sukiyaki, $15), salmon, shrimp, scallops or regular sirloin ($16), filet mignon ($18), sirloin and shrimp ($20), lobster, lobster and sirloin, or a scallops-lobster-shrimp mix ($22). I chose teriyaki-seasoned sirloin ($17), while my daughter asked for scallops.

After a simple, delicious serving of miso soup and a slightly tired salad with a lively dollop of ginger-based dressing, our tableside chef wheeled his wares to the teppan. The routine that typically follows varies little from restaurant to restaurant, and begins with the tools: fork, knife and spatula, drummed and clanged together, tossed and flipped. Next, an array of shrimp is trimmed while quickly sizzling, tails tossed into unexpected places.

Usually there’s a volcano of flame created in a small mountain of onion rings. Sometimes I’ve been asked if it’s all right to do this in front of the kid (who gets a big kick out of it), but this time it was simply left out of the show.

It can be argued that food service always has been a form of theater, which underscores the need for this kind of show to stay fresh. Our chef seemed to be just going through the motions. Skilled motions, of course, but without the slightly wild edge of exuberance I’ve enjoyed at other such meals.

The plate, when finished, is piled high with vegetables and noodles in addition to the meat of your choice, and the cooking style keeps the veggies crisp and the meats very tasty. Seeing that it’s a complete dinner for the price, it’s a good value.

You’ll get the soup and salad with some of the other non-hibachi dinners, too (the illustrated menu is certainly a help for those unfamiliar with the fare). A tempura dinner ($14) proved to be an elegantly presented array of deep-fried shrimp in a batter so light that it looked like delicate filigree coating the several large shrimp and accompanying vegetables.

Service was very attentive, even as the room continued to fill during the visit. We left with enough unfinished portions to make up another meal.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip and a glass of beer, was $80.

TABLE SCRAPS

Dominick Purnomo, maitre d’ and sommelier of Yono’s Restaurant (Armory Center, 64 Colvin Ave., Albany), recently was inducted into the gastronomic organization La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs as the youngest member in the history of the United States Bailliage. Also featured in the 2003 Chalk Hill Winery Sommelier Guide, Purnomo is one of only five sommeliers from New York state. The wine list he offers at Yono’s now covers 14 countries, with more than 500 bottle selections and 23 wines by the glass, making it the largest list in the Capital Region and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. Call 436-7747 for more info, or check out www.yonos.com. . . . .Ferrandi’s French Restaurant (322 Route 67, Amsterdam) presents its fourth annual Fête Des Rois, the traditional Festival of Kings, Jan. 24-27, with a $27 prix fixe four-course meal that includes as entrée choices Fricassée de Volaille a l’Ancienne (chicken and vegetables in a Veloute sauce), Petit Filet Mignon du Chef (sautéed with shallots, mushrooms and ham) and Sole Amandine. Following a French tradition that dates back to 1311, a special cake—the Galette des Rois—conceals one bean that confers the crown upon the lucky recipient. Each party at the restaurant will get to participate in this tradition. For more info and reservations, call 842-6977, or visit www.ferrandis.net. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ. Food Rating Key: * * * * * An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. * * * * Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. * * * Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. * * A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.


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