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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Aoki Teppanyaki

     'Cause it was still my birthday month! The celebration continued Japanese-style! It was fun and educational. Turns out what I've been calling 'hibachi' is actually 'teppanyaki'. 'Teppanyaki' refers to dishes cooked over an iron griddle whereas 'hibachi' cooking uses an open grate design, like a barbecue grill.
     Aoki is expansive and the Asian decor is successful in creating an elegant and authentic Japanese village atmosphere. I noticed a tunnel of red wooden arches offering carved aphorisms in both Japanese and English, vaguely reminiscent of Kyoto's torii gates. Intricate wooden statues greet you from accent tables and counters.
   
     I have to say that the best part of our visit for me was the service. Everyone made me feel like a VIP, and they didn't even know it was a birthday lunch until much later.  I asked for a private table when ours filled up with strangers, and they quickly and cheerfully complied with my request. You see, that's not how it normally. Teppanyaki tables are intended to be filled with more than one party if necessary, but I wanted the freedom to catch up with my lunch companions, Usha and Cindy without sacrificing privacy.  Yes, I'm spoiled that way.
     I wanted my Lychee Martini prepared a certain way and, once again, the bartender was happy to grant my wish.  Not only that;  he also charged me the Happy Hour price even though I requested a premium vodka.
     A special shoutout to the hostess, Kristen, and our server, Quinn, for their attention to detail in making our visit a delightful experience. When I speak of what restaurant service should be like, this is what I'm talking about!
     The meal begins with what they call the Spinning Salad.  The salad man comes to the table and 'spins' a mixture of romaine lettuce and fresh vegetables with ginger dressing. Nothing unusual about it except that they top it with Bonito shavings or 'bacon from the sea'.
      Act 2 is the actual show with the fire and the knife juggling, and between the three of us, we covered the staples for the main course: NY striploin, chicken, pork and shrimp. The one element of this meal that made me take pause was the Inaka Rice (Healthy Fried Rice). I can confidently say this is the best Asian-style rice I have ever tasted.
     The mix of white, Japanese short grain, Jasmine, brown and Chinese Forbidden rices along with vegetables and Japanese Somen noodles produce a light yet luxurious flavor that is addictive and requires no help from sauces or dressings. In fact, I am convinced if you add anything to it, you will ruin the magic.
          The flavor of this rice is so well constructed, a bowlful can stand alone as a complete meal. However, it's versatile enough to be the perfect companion to the proteins and the sauteed vegetables. A note about the vegetables- it's the standard combination of zucchini strips and onions, but their "orange" vegetable is sweet potato in place of carrots, a definite upgrade in my opinion.
     The dessert menu consists of only one item: Fried Brownie with your choice of Green Tea, chocolate or vanilla bean ice cream. Since there's always room for improvement, perhaps this is an area they could work on just for the sake of variety. We did share one order for quality control and enjoyed it. The brownie was hearty and comforting in its crusty covering and went well with the coolness of the ice cream.
     The Green Tea flavor was a bit on the mild side and got swallowed up by the strong personality of the fried brownie, but that wasn't a huge shortcoming.
     It's fascinating to me how just one or two outstanding features can make the difference between a mediocre experience and a memorable one. The personalized service and that off-the-chain rice made this meal distinctive. Glad I came!

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