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There’s really no need for a movie after dinner at Ukai Japanese Steakhouse—supper is the show. Arrive in any style, sit back and enjoy an evening of juggling eggs, flipping bowls and flying shrimp.
The Ukai location on Grand River Avenue in Okemos (there’s a second location in Delta Township) has two dining spaces: the sushi bar and hibachi room. On my visit with two companions, the sushi bar was empty. The hibachi room, on the other hand, was kicking. Half a dozen islands each have their own teppan grill (a flat-surface griddle) as a centerpiece, around which eager diners wait for the chef.
Before the main event, two servers took our orders. The meals we ordered came with miso soup and a small, iceberg lettuce salad topped with a somewhat watery ginger dressing. The piping hot miso soup tasted as if it had much of the flavor cooked out of it.
When the chef arrived, knife holstered to his hip and ready to perform, he first served a pair of dipping sauces — a mild horseradish and a tasty ginger-based sauce — to each person. Then the acrobatics began.
A splash of oil was spread across the grill and lit into a quickly disappearing fireball. Younger diners covered their eyes and flinched backward in a flurry of fear and startled giggles.
The first act of the show was a flurry of clanging metal as the chef’s spatula and fork spanked the griddle, twirled around his finger and flipped into the air to be caught behind his back. Next, the chef deftly juggled eggs with a pair of spatulas before cracking them onto the now sizzling grill. He mixed the egg with rice and vegetables, pushing and pulling the pile until it was sufficiently blended for those who had ordered fried rice.
Of the seven guests who sat around our table, all but one ordered something to be grilled. Those of us who ordered steaks told the chef how they should be cooked, and he then laid out the chicken breasts, cuts of steak, shrimp, scallops, salmon and lobster tail. Each item was cooked and delivered to diners’ plates one at a time, while longer cooking cuts were set to the side of the grill where the temperature is cooler.
First up was the shrimp, which was flattened with a smack of the spatula and deftly tossed onto each of our plates. The different entrée meats were then turned and sliced into bite-size chunks. I went with the origami special ($28), which came with filet mignon, shrimp and scallops. I ordered the filet mignon medium rare and wondered how the chef would keep it from being overcooked once he started in with the shrimp. I was right to wonder — it ended up being cooked medium, with just a hint of red left in the center of each piece. While a touch more supple than my companion’s lesser-grade steak, the filet mignon lost most of the tenderness I look for when I pay for that cut. My scallops, however, remained tender.
One of my companions went with the steak and chicken Tokyo special ($18) and was completely satisfied. My other companion went with the teriyaki salmon ($16) from the less expensive Hibachi menu, and was glad he did. More than any other dish, the salmon kept its distinct flavor and was complemented by a nice savory-sweet teriyaki coat.
My biggest beef with the meal was that the flavors of each ingredient became a bit lost in the mix. Contributing to the mono-flavor effect was the same sauce being liberally doused onto nearly every item that touched the grill. The ginger soy sauce and the horseradish sauce were pleasant, though the latter was a bit tame — I would have enjoyed more of a kick.
Our meals came with a choice of plum wine or ice cream for dessert. I was happy I went with the plum wine: first, it gave the meal a sweet, slightly tart, warming finish, and, second, the ice cream had large, unpleasant ice crystals in it.
If I go back to Ukai, it will surely be for the show and a selection from the Hibachi menu or perhaps some sushi. For a nearly $30 plate, I expected much more out of the special I ended up with. But in the end, I was satisfied. Perhaps it was because of moments like when our chef flipped a bowl holding eggshells into the top of his hat. Seeing an artist at work is worth the price of admission.
Ukai Japanese Steak, Sushi & Seafood
2167 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos
4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Noon-9 p.m. Sunday