Fire It Up

The manly art of performance grilling finds a new showcase at Sakura West.

Man, meat and fire have a primal relationship. One that certainly pre-dates the famous urging to "Go west, young man...." And yet, somehow they all cross paths again in the new Sakura West. Conquering the new frontier, albeit one of endless condos and precious few restaurants, Mr. Yahn, owner of the beloved Sakura, has opened a new expansive venue on the Northwest side.

What could be more elemental than men, meat, and fire?

Well, I suppose you could add iron. Teppan, literally "iron" in Japanese, refers to the large iron surface on which a highly trained professional wields knives, teasing flames up to the ceiling, and generally entertaining while they cook your meal.

For those who are teppan table virgins, you should know that the show is at least as important as the food. Sakura West is a venue built to showcase the teppan table. Even more teppan tables are built into this Sakura than in the original, and this sense of grandeur carries over into the notion of the open flame. Many open fireplaces, from the entranceway, throughout the dining room, even small intimate private dining rooms have their own fireplaces. A large and airy outdoor bar area features open fireplaces, too. A promise of spectacle hangs in the air.

Sakura West delivers. The cavernous dining room is ablaze with open flame. Fireplaces blaze away and the room is loud and clangy, awash in a red and black motif, a sea of tables and happy, glazed -over faces. Indeed, to enter into Sakura West is to submit yourself into the roar.

We shared our teppan table with another dining party. This is not an unusual custom, and it is meant to enhance the dining experience with a sense of the communal meal; it s also economically savvy since you maximize the individual chef's exertions. Should you visit Sakura West be aware of your preference for spatial boundaries.

We ordered our meal fairly swiftly. The service throughout the meal seemed to be an organized team effort. Clearly with this many people to serve, a well-orchestrated staff has to be able to adequately meet the needs of large, oddly organized groups of people. Our server did her level best. She took the order for the entire teppan table's meal. We were then left to wait for our chef to arrive.

To help pass the time, we were served small steaming bowls of a fragrant miso soup. Although we had opted to share meals, those who had placed an order were served a light salad dressed with a ginger dressing. This did help time pass, and we eagerly awaited the chef to take center stage.

When he did, he entered appropriately, greeting the guests, welcoming us to the restaurant, but we couldn't help but notice he seemed a bit tired, a bit rehearsed. If you haven't sat at a teppan table, then you might want to know that the chef's chops with his knives are a matter of grave importance. Knives are slung, clanged, rapped, tossed and caught; they become a performance tool. Our chef rattled and banged, but he seemed a bit weary. This probably, and justifiably, had a lot to do with the fact that the venue was slammed. Still, when he tossed the egg and cleaved it off center, he did so with a little sigh, but doggedly went on with the performance.

We ordered a mushroom appetizer and calamari to begin our meal. A heap of mushrooms was deftly maneuvered on the iron, followed by a skittering pile of raw calamari. Within minutes we were served buttery mushrooms and squares of sautéed calamari.

The joy of the teppan table comes with watching an inert mass of ingredients gradually shape up into a meal. And thus a slippery pile of scallops and shrimp became a lovely, seasoned and nicely browned seafood dinner. Likewise with raw slabs of beef and shrimp. Small bowls of dipping sauce are served, mostly gingery soy mixtures, to help enliven things. Steamed rice and vegetables, a bright mix of greens, red peppers, and onions helped round this out into a filling meal.

To finish the performance, a volcano was made from onion slices doused with oil. Flames shot up into the air, and when they died away steam shot out, winning the hearty approval of younger diners. When a small boy from another table stopped by to watch the onion volcano he rapturously declared, "Oh, I hope we get one of those too." To which the chef drily remarked, "Everybody get onion volcano."

Hope was won, but at the same time it only underscored the rehearsed quality of the meal. Although the showmanship was sporty, the motions felt routine.

Should the realm of fire not hold appeal, a sushi bar bears gifts from the sea. On the night we dined, the sea urchin roe and yellowtail were particularly fresh. The current trend in Tucson to make portions so large they are difficult to handle; but these servings were satisfying yet on the slender side. A rainbow roll proffered up an eye-popping array of colors and textures. Salmon, tuna and California roll also pleased with not only the quality of the fish, but presentation as well.

Even though our chef moved on to other teppan tables and eager diners, we found ourselves lingering in front of the clean grill, now wiped clean. And, to the credit of servers and managers alike, we were not ushered or pressured to leave. Servers continued to monitor the table and made sure water glasses were kept full. At one point even Mr. Yahn wandered by, greeting all the diners, making sure all had been satisfied with their meal.

Perhaps this is the mark of what makes a venue successful, the singular touch of a committed staff proud of the product they serve. That and all those open flames. Should you need to put a little fire back into your life, you can mark this as the perfect reason to head west.

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