Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teppanyaki Gathering

What a whirlwind of activity since my last post. Several cities, some great food, fun new cooking adventures and moving my dad from his old place into a new, more octogenarian-friendly condo. Since this is a food blog, I’ll spare you the details of the latter but suffice to say that without my kids, that would have been a nightmare. Still, I’ve gathered enough foodie experiences to blog for a while. I find it interesting that I’ve never posted about a restaurant here in Tarpon Springs that we probably go to more than any other. It may be because I never think to take my camera. Well that changed last week.

Our former neighbors are the proverbial “snow birds”. If you’re not from Florida, that is a common reference to the folks who winter here and summer in their northern domiciles. I’ve heard the term used derogatorily but I mean no disrespect. Mary Jane and Charlie are the best neighbors one could ever hope to have. We met 10 years ago when we moved to Tarpon Springs and there’s nothing you wouldn’t love about them. From upstate New York, they consider their home here their primary house and they spend about 5 months in a smaller place up north. There they enjoy a mild summer and spend lots of quality time with the kids and grandkids that they have missed for months. When here, I didn’t swing a hammer at my old house without Charlie showing up with his toolbox (not that I’m much of a hammer swinger) and Mary Jane could be found tending her plants and snipping fresh herbs for me to cook with. Charlie would pick the grapefruit from my tree and bring me all of the fresh juice I could drink in lieu of the fact they couldn’t drink it themselves due to a medication interaction. When they see my daughter, Olivia, they always bring some sort of gift and they are in constant request for new pictures of her. Seriously, they are the best.

As they get ready for their annual trek back up north, we neighbors have had a spring get together for their sendoff. Usually Mary Jane would cook to clear her fridge out for the summer or we gathered at one of the other neighbor’s houses for some cocktails and general communion. This year I thought we should go out to dinner somewhere. In all of the years we’ve been friends, we’ve never been out to dinner together. Our sites were set on Hiro’s Tokyo Japanese Steakhouse. Most people have eaten at a place like this. Its Teppanyaki style Japanese, meaning they cook it on a flat top grill right in front of you and the chef puts on a little show while he’s cooking. I’ve enjoyed this style of Japanese since my mom and dad used to take me to places like this as a kid. What’s more is that it’s a perfect place for a good size group to gather since the seating is circular around the cooking so folks can chat with each other even from across the way. There were about 14 of us so we encompassed 2 tables that were together and 2 chefs prepared our meal.

Tokyo, as we call it, has gone through some transformations over the years and not all of them positive. I remember when it was built, some 20 years ago, and it was a pretty good place to go at first. Unfortunately, in a community bustling with retirees looking for the “blue plate special”, the higher priced seafood and steak restaurant didn’t last. After closing, it sat idle for quite some time then reopened as one of those places that you can go paint your own ceramics. My daughter Brittany, now 20, attended a girlfriend’s birthday party there. She must have been about 7 or 8 then. My failure to remember the ceramic she created is an analogy for the establishment. It didn’t last long at all. Again idle. Then roughly 10 years ago a new owner came in. He did a great remodel and opened as Hiro’s Tokyo. With glistening new cooking tables shipped from Japan (at ten grand a piece) and a sushi bar, they opened to little fanfare. Lisa and I were fledgling in our relationship when we walked in the door during its first week. Our experience was terrific. The food was fresh and delicious. We frequented this place and were known to order their fried rice with extra “Yum-Yum” sauce for takeout. Lisa even fell in love with sea scallops, the big meaty ones (a big deal for a sworn seafood hater). And so began our bi-weekly dining until a few bad things happened. Noticing a drop in food quality and an interior in need of some repair, we took a hiatus. Finally about 4 years ago, we stopped back in and things seemed to turn around. The menu was new, the interior was redone, a new deck was put on and the sushi was high quality. We were back and haven’t looked back.

I don't think I've ever seen my son Josh, 21, in a tie

Their menu is quite large and typical for a Teppanyaki restaurant but they also prepare traditional Japanese in the back kitchen of you like. Their Sushi bar is as respectable as one could hope for outside of a major city and they often have some of my favorite and more rare finds. In the Teppanyaki room, the meal begins with the chef wheeling a cart to the table. He starts with the rice and vegetables. The show always includes a few standards such as the onion volcano and flipping an egg around on his spatula until finally cracking it on the grill for the fried rice.

Pouring oil into the about-to-be-lit onion volcano

Kids love this stuff although the fire that the chef starts can be a bit startling for the youngest guests. Olivia, age 4, is an aficionado of the performance and will not hesitate to call out the chef if he skips a step in his performance.

This night was wonderful. I enjoyed a rare beef filet and scallops cooked just perfectly and the entire group seemed to have a great experience. If you’ve never been to a place like this, I recommend you go. It’s not a quiet romantic dinner place and they will seat you at a table with others if you aren’t in a group. Every time Lisa and I go alone, we meet folks that have never been and are mesmerized by the unique way they prepare the meal. For now, Hiro’s Tokyo is our favorite restaurant in Tarpon Springs and we can be found there a couple of times a month.

No comments: