And the chef's floor show at Japanese Garden is fittingly entertaining. The shocker, however, is the sushi bar, which turns out some real works of art for those who savor the joy of raw fish and pickled rice.
Although the irony probably isn't intentional, the best landmark to use in locating Japanese Garden is a huge inflatable dragon monster -- except for its color, a dead ringer for Godzilla -- in front of an auto dealer about a half-block before you turn into the restaurant's parking lot. This is all located about 15 miles east of downtown St. Louis, at the O'Fallon exit of I-64 in Illinois, right where it intersects with U.S. Highway 50.
Such a setting is just a bit disconcerting, backed up as it is by a string of generic manufactured-building hotels. It's all the more wonderful, then, to see the "sushi bar open" sign, because any number of teppanyaki-style restaurants around town either don't have sushi at all or serve premade stuff that often sits around in a refrigerator for too long before it's served.
Inside, soothing Japanese music sets the mood, with 18 teppans-for-eight ahead to the left and a light-wood-motif room labeled "sushi and sports bar" to the right. We spent one evening on one side and one on the other, although it is possible (as we witnessed) to have sushi on the grill-room side. Given the labor-intensive nature of sushi and the sheer numbers of people involved, this can lead to some logistical problems, although it worked out fine early in the evening for another party at our table.
As noted, the sushi was a spectacular surprise. We made a meal of six orders (two pieces to an order) of nigiri -- slices of fish on rectangles of rice -- and three maki and were especially stunned by the artistry and ingredients of the latter, which are rolls of fish, rice and other ingredients held tight by paper-thin sheets of dried, roasted seaweed called nori. All were prepared by a slightly shy but ever-smiling chef, identified only by the single name of Lee.
The three maki were the Philadelphia, Alaska and Japanese Garden Special rolls. The Philadelphia took its name from a layer of cream cheese mixed in with lox, cream cheese, avocado and onion. The Alaska highlighted that state's reputation for salmon and crab, although the latter was represented in ersatz form. The house-special roll was the most elaborate -- smoked eel, avocado and daikon radish inside, rolled in a layer of rice and ultimately coated with sesame seeds and both flavored and decorated with matchstick-shaped pieces of seaweed. Our complete order was arranged with the rolls in the center and the individual pieces of tuna, yellowtail, octopus and other fish around the edges of an elegant rectangular ceramic plate.
The room itself features several contrasts, with soft colors on the walls and traditional paper shades on the windows counterpointed by a TV at every corner of the room. The one really jarring element was the floor, which, despite being a nice blond hardwood, looked as if it had recently been overrun by a crazed swarm of uniformed schoolboys who had neglected to remove their hard soles before running across the gym floor.
The grill side of the restaurant is regimented and proper, almost library-quiet to begin with, with the silence broken only by hushed conversations and the pulsating plucks of traditional Japanese music. A waitress circulates around each table to take orders and then brings the traditional hot towel before serving a light chicken broth and a small salad dressed with chopped ginger. After those courses, the chef appears with a flourish, powering up the overhead fan with a resounding whoosh and laying down oil in flaming blue arcs to prepare his cooktop for use.
The first piece of culinary prestidigitation involves the chef's spinning an egg on the grill -- accompanied by the feeble pun "egg roll" -- and then tossing it in the air and splitting it on a spatula, allowing the contents to run down onto the grill as the first ingredient for fried rice. If he makes a "mistake" -- and one gets the feeling he does so only if he darn well wants to -- he mutters something about being "sent back to White Castle."
I ordered my steak rare, and our chef jokingly flipped a piece off after setting it on the grill for only an instant, but in fact I doubt that the actual cooking of the quarter-inch-or-so strip took more than a minute. Shrimp and chicken obviously take a bit longer, as did the two steaks that produced a look of horror (or was it?) on the face of the chef when they were ordered medium-well. In the midst of all this, the chef grills a mixture of mushroom, carrot, onion and zucchini, as well as a separate preparation of beans sprouts, and manages to perform another mean trick by transforming a dome of onion rings into a fiery, then steamy, volcano, at the very end making "woo-woo" noises and pantomiming a steam engine.
A ginger-based sauce is provided in which to dip seafood selections, as is a moderately spicy mustard for the meat, and the whole performance is generally over in less than an hour. Kids' portions are available for 7-9 bucks, and the constant activity actually makes these kind of restaurants a good choice for family outings because there's always something visual going on to hold the young'uns' interest. (Speaking of holding the young'uns, one couple came in with a toddler, who was carried around by one of the waitresses throughout the course of the couple's meal. We guessed that this level of service isn't offered to just anybody, but it certainly deserved an "above and beyond" award.)
By offering everything from straightforward steaks, chicken and cooked seafood to brightly colored fish eggs wrapped in seaweed and topped with raw quail egg, Japanese Garden has pretty much something for everyone. And you're also likely to enjoy the show.
JAPANESE GARDEN, 108 Regency Park (I-64 at Highway 50), O'Fallon, Ill., 618-632-8700 or 314-533-8700. Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily. Sushi, $3.75-$6; complete grilled meals, $10.95-$29.95.