By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
Japanese steak houses in the United States have mutated so far from their origins — the Misono restaurant chain in post-World War II Japan — that a Japanese audience might be drop-jawed at the shenanigans. "Why are people throwing food at me? Why did the chef just flip a shrimp into his shirt pocket? And why on earth is this birthday music so loud?"
The concept made famous by Benihana has taken root as one of Americans' favorite dinner-is-the-show options. Juggling, knife swashbuckling, some clowning around — it's like Cirque du Soleil with a side of soy sauce.
Koto Japanese Steak House & Asian Food opened two months ago in Whaley's Plaza, a strip shopping center that sat fairly under utilized after Whaley's pulled out but seems to be enjoying new life (there's also a new pizza takeout and Jimmy John's deli). Of the Tampa Bay area's remarkably large number of Japanese steak houses, Koto is one of the weaker. Teppanyaki chefs flub their tricks regularly and service is rushed and perfunctory. The dining room is airstrip loud and a service sink in the dining room has a bucket of sludgy water sitting on the floor in plain view of diners. Teppanyaki dinner shows are always high energy, but this one is uncomfortably raucous.
Teppanyaki menus have been homogenized to such an extent that you know exactly what you're getting (beyond the onion volcano that shoots fire out the top and the child's fireman toy that "tinkles" water onto the sizzling teppanyaki): A clear chicken broth with scallion and other bits (very wholesome at Koto, my favorite part of the meal actually), followed by the standard iceberg lettuce salad with a ginger dressing. Then the teppanyaki drama begins: A pile of fried rice gets started in the corner of the griddle with lots of spatula clanking; in another a heap of zucchini, white onion and mushroom is begun; in a third a pile of noodles. All of these things at Koto are bland — but I will say that the standard practice of serving the veggies and rice first, while the meat and seafood performance begins, makes sure diners eat the healthy stuff.
I tried chicken ($14), shrimp ($20), steak ($22) and fancier filet mignon ($26) on my first visit to Koto (all of these are offered individually and in combos). It's all uninteresting but not unpleasant in any way; cooked well, the dominant flavor soy sauce, even when dabbed in one of the two accompanying sauces, a soy-based yakiniku and another a mayo-ish sweet sauce.
A few days after that dinner I returned for a sushi lunch (you can also order teppanyaki at a regular table for lunch or dinner without all the hubbub — a plate just arrives at your table with its accoutrements). Sushi, too, was largely pleasant but unremarkable, with five workhorse nigiri pieces and a maki of eel and avocado ($12) filling me up but without the briny, ocean-breeze satisfaction of super-fresh fish. The list of fancier signature sushi rolls — lots of tempura, cream cheese and spicy mayo — seems expensive in the current climate, ranging from $12 to $15. A sushi dinner for two can quickly climb near triple digits.
Still, Koto does a brisk business. It's license to behave raucously, to whoop and to catcall when the teppanyaki guy misses his mark. I suppose we gave McDonald's to Japan, so this mayhem must be our penance.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.