Dinner and a Show

Bonsai provides an entertaining, tasty meal--but its servers should learn patience

Teppan yaki dining is a little bit like dinner theater, complete with pyrotechnics, flashing knives and corny jokes. Diners sit at a communal table while a chef cooks right before your eyes, joking around and juggling both food and utensils. And while Bonsai Japanese Steak and Seafood has an impressive sushi side, it's first and foremost a teppan yaki joint.

John and I went on a Saturday night. The dining room is dressed in a lot of black with watery-blue lighting. A full bar sits on one wall; a sushi bar lines another. There are fish tanks behind the sushi bar. It feels elegant and cool!

We'd barely sat down at the teppan yaki table when our server arrived, asking us for our order. It is customary that nobody eats until everyone orders, but we felt a bit rushed. The young man said he would return ... and he did, mere moments later. We still hadn't had enough time to read the menu, and he seemed upset.

Could this harried pace be the result of one impatient waiter? Nope. The same thing happened on visit two, with a different server.

But back to the first visit. When we did order, I went with nigiri shrimp ($3.50), nigiri octopus ($4) and a Tucson roll ($7.50) from the sushi bar, along with pork gyoza ($5.95) for an appetizer and sukiyaki steak ($16.95) for my entrée. John ordered the soft shell crab appetizer ($6.95) and shrimp teppan yaki ($17.95) for dinner. We each had a Sapporo beer ($3.50).

Dinners come with soup, salad, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables and your choice of white rice or fried rice ($2 extra). Our companions were served the soup and salad while we munched on our sushi and appetizers.

Both nigiri were quite good. The Tucson roll--with fried shrimp, avocado, cucumber and topped with unagi sauce (a thick, cooked sauce with soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar and honey) and crunch ("flour," according to the server)--was a real treat. The pork gyoza, which had been seasoned and pan fried, consisted of a tender and crispy wrap and a mildly seasoned filling. Ponzu sauce was served for dipping.

The soft-shell crab was deep-fried with panko breading. Sadly, the crab got lost in the breading. The soup was somewhat bland, and salad OK (to be fair, Karyn Zoldan raved about the dressing during visit No. 2). Both might've been more enjoyable had we more time to savor them.

By this time, our chef had arrived with his magic bag of tricks. He made a few jokes, drizzled some oil on the grill and like Prometheus, gave us fire! Flames leaped high into the air. We oohed! We ahhed! Then--splat! An egg was frying on the grill. This was followed by rice, veggies (including a volcano of fresh onion rings), chicken for our tablemates, my beef and last but not least, John's shrimp. Our chef was entertaining, keeping our attention with each practiced move. Some might think it was a little loud--there's quite a bit of tapping utensils against the grill--but teppan yaki involves all the senses.

He presented us with two dipping sauces--a rich ginger sauce and a mayonnaise-based sauce called yum-yum sauce. The second had been spiked with a bit of heat (cayenne pepper, I think).

I had ordered the white rice. The rest of the table had gone with the fried rice, which was ceremoniously placed on each plate.

First off the grill was the shrimp. We each got two, and John got the rest (more than a dozen). The shrimp had been splashed with lemon and sprinkled with secret seasoning. Thankfully, it was cooked perfectly; one minute longer, and the shrimp would've been toast.

Next came my beef. It was a tough cut, but with the right amount of tenderizing, some marinating and some more of that secret seasoning, it was delicious, as were the veggies--a huge amount of zucchini, carrots, onions, sprouts, mushrooms, etc.

Then our chef departed, heading for his next performance.

Dessert (included with the meal) consisted of perfectly ripe orange slices and sweet pineapple chunks served in a "boat" made from the outside of the pineapple. Chocolate sauce had been drizzled across the top, and dabs of whipped cream were on the side. Both were totally unnecessary: The fruit stood alone.

Visit two came the following Friday. Karyn and I were seated with just one other gentleman who patiently waited while we decided what we wanted. Too bad I the staff wasn't as patient; while friendly, they seemed anxious to get us moving.

This time, we ordered a tuna nigiri ($4), a lobster roll ($10) and, in a fit of adventure, the Yami roll ($9), which consisted of mozzarella cheese rolled in nori, then deep-fried in tempura batter and topped with tuna, tomato, onion, avocado and a spicy mayo.

For an appetizer, we ordered the spinach gyoza ($5.95). Karyn opted for the New York steak teppan yaki ($18.95), and I ordered the scallop teppan yaki ($18.95). We each ordered a glass of wine: plum wine ($5) for Karyn, chardonnay ($5.00) for me.

Our young chef was entertaining but certainly not as practiced as the chef on the first night. He flipped his spatula too high, and it ended up in Karyn's lap. She joked she was glad it wasn't a cleaver.

The spinach gyoza weren't quite as good as the pork--the wrap overpowered the delicate filling--but the tuna nigiri melted in the mouth. The lobster roll--filled with tender baked lobster in a light cream sauce, lettuce, cucumber, avocado and kaiware (daikon radish sprouts)--was wrapped in soy paper. Delicate and delicious, each bite revealed another flavor. But the combination in the Yami roll was a little odd. The cheese just didn't work, and the spicy mayo overpowered the delicate tuna. I wouldn't order it again.

The well-seasoned steak and seafood were cooked just how they should be--delicious! This time, I had the fried rice. Laced with an assortment of tasty veggies and seasoned with a house sauce, it was worth the extra $2.

Dessert was the same as night one, this time sans chocolate sauce.

Both visits were fun, and the food was delicious, albeit pricey. But something needs to be done about their impatience. Hire more chefs? Allow smaller parties to order? A simple explanation of their policy? After all, patience is a virtue.

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