Whammm!! Bam!! Splat!! Zing!! . ..the teppan-table action at Osaka reads like a Roy Lichtenstein pop painting: everything in balloons. But without the irony.
Which is both the charm and the inherent limitation of the genre. Leonardo must either be a little lower-key than some show chefs or a very good judge of character, reading us as open yet cautious. Yes, he indulged in the anticipated barrage of banging, slapping, and launching of lemon halves into the air, but he also answered questions forthrightly, except for the one about where he got his training. In a Japanese prison, he replied, and quickly countered with three years at Benihana. We assume they’re not one and the same.
Another note about Osaka before the curtain goes up: In lieu of sitting around a teppan grill, you can order a kitchen dinner such as the Osaka Spicy Plates (chicken, pork, or calamari stir-fried with scallion, chili paste, sliced garlic, and chili power ), traditional teriyaki and the deep-fried katsu of chicken, pork, or fish.
But there’s something reassuring about seeing all the ingredients set before you in their raw state. The vegetables appear first, then showtime. Let the chopping and flipping begin.
The first act was perhaps the best. The zucchini, red bell peppers, onion, and mushrooms all looked impeccably fresh, and though the chef quickly reduced large pieces to small ones, all doused with soybean oil, soy, and teriyaki sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds and salt, they retained a crunchy integrity. Before karate chopping them into submission, he assembled the onion rings into a volcano, doused them with oil, then set them alight for a pretty good show of flames and pepper flakes. Hey, let your inner child loose.
And the vegetables were actually quite good, a highly seasoned harbinger of things to come. From our selection of calamari, scallops, and filet mignon (chicken, lobster and several combinations are also available), the squid strips were the first to hit the plate with the requisite flourishes. And they were fine so quickly cooked they were tender, so liberally seasoned that they barely needed either the mustard or ginger dipping sauce. Sea scallops, hit with lemon, garlic butter, pepper and salt, were next to appear, cooked just enough, seasoned just a little more than necessary.
By the time the filet mignon met the grill, first as an impressive slab, the show was winding down a little, but the cubes were perfectly cooked and, again, fearlessly seasoned. Ditto the couple of shrimp apiece. The fried rice was another show involving fried eggs, a lot of flipping and flopping, but probably the best fried rice I’ve had in years.
Which does bring us inevitably to one issue: palate fatigue. By the time the rice was served, we were beginning to tire of salt and soy, just to mention a couple of common seasonings. I would ask the chef to go easy on both were I to do this again.
More flavor, on the other hand, might be asked of the sassy, sashed sushi chefs, resplendent in red. That will be $10 for looking, quipped one as I perused the display of raw seafood. It might have been better to have paid the toll, stopping short of actually ordering the $22 Sushi Story combination as a starter to the teppan trials.
The show consists of your choice of California or spicy tuna rolls, plus the chef’s choice of seven pieces of basic nigiri shushi. The spicy tuna was unexceptional, the nigiri sushi fresh enough but assembled with modest art and no shiso leaf. The lone customer at the sushi counter had volunteered that the sushi was great, and so it may be if you belly up to the bar. (See for yourself at the 5-7 p.m. happy hour, when certain models are $1.)
Nor were we much taken by the fried ice cream. Sorry, but all of us had had the tempura-battered green-tea version at Sushi Zushi. At Osaka, vanilla is the only option, the wrapping is pound cake (too thick), and the contrast between cold and hot is nonexistent. But dessert is not a big issue when dining at a Japanese establishment. Go for the show, have a little sake, suspend disbelief, and consider it up-close-and-personal dinner theater. For that, it’s very fairly priced. •