Sometimes dining isn't serious.
Sometimes it's about things like onion volcanoes and gongs and free desserts and bits of shrimp tossed at your open mouth.
That's the experience at one of the few hibachi restaurants in Omaha, Kobe Steak House, which moved to a new location in Village Pointe in 2011.
I found myself having more fun than I expected at the communal hibachi grill. Most of the food was better than I thought it would be and better than I remembered from when I last visited Kobe, before it moved from Regency.
I ran into some problems on the sushi side of the restaurant, which was nearly empty on both visits, and I also took issue with the restaurant's pricey menu. That said, the hibachi experience — I have to say — is pretty fun.
Even on a Monday night, we had to wait a few minutes to get a seat at a hibachi table.
Kobe is divided into two sides: One is a regular dining room. That's where diners can eat sushi or sit at the bar.
In two other huge dining rooms sit large, rectangular, portable Japanese grills called hibachi. Diners are seated communally around these, and a chef trained in cooking and showmanship makes dinner in front of them.
We sat at a table in the hibachi room that looks out on 168th Street. The room's south wall is adorned with a large, glowing red and white screen decorated with a map of Japan. The huge screen is visible from the street — the rest of the walls are windows — and the glowing wall gives the smoky room a modern feel. The bar in the sushi side of the restaurant also glows red.
Our table included me, my husband and eight people who were there to celebrate a birthday. Almost every table in the place was there for a celebration. I knew this because Kobe marks birthdays with loud renditions of “Happy Birthday” accompanied by gong-banging, candle-blowing and photo-taking.
I heard the gong and the singing seven times in two visits. Don't go here looking for a quiet meal. That's not what this place is about.
We started with what Kobe calls “clear broth soup” that tasted a lot like miso soup to me. The broth was simple and hot, studded with green onions, garlic and mushroom. We also got an iceberg lettuce salad with carrot dressing.
Then the show began with a bang, literally.
Our chef lit the grill with a whoosh of fire. Then he twirled and tapped and banged and swirled spatulas left and right, to a fair amount of hooting and hollering from diners and, of course, the banging of the gong and the singing of “Happy Birthday.”
The chef sauteed hissing vegetables — a mix of carrot, zucchini and onion — and steamed rice. He squirted soy sauce and oil with a flourish. The salt and pepper shakers tinkled like bells as he tapped them, seasoning the food.
He twirled eggs in their shells on the thin edge of his spatula, then tossed them in the air, alternately catching them in his chef's hat and breaking them onto the grill, which he mentioned later is heated to 550 degrees.
Food was flying everywhere. The grill warmed our faces.
My husband likened the experience to a weird mix of eating dinner and watching the Harlem Globetrotters. That's fairly accurate.
The veggies, served first, were nicely seasoned and cooked to a crisp doneness.
The fried rice was good if not a touch sticky. My husband said he'd rather have had it later in his meal, but that was a small complaint.
The chef dropped lots and lots of butter onto the hibachi, pat after tablespoon-sized pat, and started to cook meat: filet, strip steak, chicken, shrimp and lobster. While it cooked, he told jokes. He squirted gag bottles that spew string instead of liquid at diners. He made that onion volcano, a tower of rounds that spit fire and steam.
My lobster was cut into chunks, and the uber-hot grill left the delicate meat a touch dry and tough. The moist chicken was flavored with soy sauce and the shrimp were well-cooked. All the meats were properly seasoned.
But the filet was the highlight of the meal: remarkably tender, perfectly cooked to mid-rare and, of course, buttery.
The portions at Kobe are huge — I took home a box full enough for another meal.
Yong Kang, manager of the Omaha location, said most diners choose the hibachi menu, and the most popular combination is filet and shrimp.
I could tell on our second visit, a weekend evening, that Kang was right. A long line of people waited for a seat at a grill. We were one of only two occupied tables in the regular dining room and got seated immediately.
Throughout our meal we could hear echoes of groans and cheers from the hibachi rooms — again, don't come looking for a romantic table for two, even outside the hibachi areas.
A calamari appetizer we started with was strange more than anything. Instead of the fried circles I expected, the calamari came out in four thick, triangular slices that were so chewy they were nearly inedible.
Kang told me this is an old Japanese style. The calamari is breaded in the restaurant and served with a fruity dipping sauce.
“Most people like it,” she said, “but some people are used to the round calamari and do not like it.”
We sampled four sushi rolls: the Godzilla, the Omaha, the Yummy and the Las Vegas. There may be a reason that diners don't go to Kobe for sushi. The city has better, more nuanced offerings than what we tried here.
The gentle flavors of fish, including tuna, shrimp and eel, were lost in rolls that were too fussy and drowned in a mayonnaise-based aioli.
The Las Vegas roll, the worst of the bunch, was topped with a huge mound of crab salad that was too rich for more than just one bite and tasted almost solely of thick mayo.
Part of the problem was that we misordered, not realizing that all the rolls we chose would be coated in the same overpowering sauce.
Kang told me later, though, that the Omaha roll wasn't supposed to be coated with it. She also said diners who like classic sushi would be better off avoiding the rolls and instead ordering nigiri, pieces of raw fish served on rice.
Kobe is not cheap. Our hibachi dinner, which included two entrees, a glass of wine and a beer, was $85 after tip. And the sushi dinner, which also included one wine and one beer, was $70.
Kang said there are two reasons for the prices: The experience, which is singular, and the quality of the meat. She said all the ingredients Kobe uses are prepared fresh daily and the salmon is sushi-grade. And she noted that people come in looking to celebrate and have a good time, and they find that.
Even with the show, though, I think might go elsewhere to celebrate my own birthday — some of the city's best restaurants fall in the same $85 price range. And for me, the experience isn't just about twirling eggs and showy fires. It's about what lands on my plate and what it tastes like. What comes from a behind-the-scenes kitchen show can be just as entertaining — sometimes more.
And speaking of landing, all of the shrimp bites the hibachi chef tossed toward my mouth landed on my shirt or the floor. My husband fared better. He caught all three.
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