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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Samurai Sushi & Hibachi, 7125 Mills Civic Parkway #110, West Des Moines, 223-4888.
Mon. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. - 10 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m. -10:30 p.m., Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

Samurai Sushi & Hibachi

Check your assumptions at the door of Samurai Sushi & Hibachi (SSH). The latest new restaurant in Jordan Creek is a cultural melting pot that boldly redefines both language and cuisine. SSH greets visitors with a huge, framed slab of marble hanging on the wall — not in a protective frame but in the kind of portrait frame one expects to see around a Goya. A second wall holds a large rock waterfall. Framed marble and artificial waterfalls are creative uses of this restaurant’s exceptionally tall ceilings, but mainly they announce that this restaurant dares to be different.

Traditionally, sushi is served in cozy, minimalist places where the food is the star attraction. SSH is something else. First, it’s not Japanese. The owners are from Hong Kong and staff comes from all over China. Japanese words have been erased from the sushi menu, making some translations vague. Language problems plagued service. It took several visits, and twice that many servers, to answer some simple questions, though they were eventually answered expertly. Secondly, SSH have no hibachis. That word is applied here to teppanyakis — large flattop grills that burn gas, not charcoal. They were popularized in America by the Benihana Steak House chain, whose style is emulated here. As at Ohana in West Des Moines, SSH chefs perform behind the grills for their audiences. One chef tossed somersaulting eggs in the air before catching them in his jacket pocket. Another flipped food from his spatula into diners’ mouths. Kids of all ages seemed to love the shows, which included much of the original Benihana routine, including “flaming onion volcanos” and similar pyrotechnics. For customers uninterested in dinner theater, the hibachi room is completely separated from the main restaurant and sushi bar. I didn’t even notice it, or its menu, on my first two visits.

My sushi ($2.50 - $5 per piece) was underwhelming. Yellowtail had a good, fresh sheen, grilled eel had a nice flavor and crispy salmon skins were well executed. However big eye tuna (inferior to blue fin), salmon, striped bass, mackerel and clams all left something to be desired in freshness and texture. (Tuesdays and Fridays are delivery days, so timing might help.) On sushi rolls ($4.50 - $16), spiced mayonnaise was used as a hook to entice new sushi eaters, like sweet & sour sauces were used to lure Americans to Chinese food.

Tempura ($4 - $8) was superior — light, crisp and brightly golden — at least when ordered at early seatings. It was as good as any I’ve had in town, and standard orders included taro root, a rare treat. Two tofu dishes — “yakko” (cold bean curd with ginger, bonito and scallions) and “age” (fried curd with crisp skin) — were the next best items. Soba and udon (noodles) dishes seemed a bit expensive ($12-14). Dumplings were strange, edges were stale like packaged fried noodles while the rest of the wrappers were soggy and separated from their filling by air bubbles. Several menu items that I wanted to order were repeatedly not available, including advertised daily specials.

Hibachi work was more fun to watch than good to eat. Chicken was overcooked, even after asking the chef to be wary of that. Steak was chewy and squid (or cuttlefish) was tough, despite theatric tenderizing. Shrimp were the best teppanyaki dishes, six jumbos in a $10 lunch with fried rice, grilled vegetables and a sliced mushroom in a chicken-flavored broth (ask for the miso instead).

Bottom line — SSH redefines the sushi bar — lavish instead of cozy, more theatrical than culinary and more American than Japanese.

Side dishes

Iowa State Fair butter sculptors reduced the size of Shawn Johnson’s thighs by four inches. The butter cow requested a facial tuck for next year… The skywalk Coney Island, an original skywalk vendor, is now closed… Raw Food’s next Meet Up will be Monday Sept. 8 at East Village Books. CV
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