Osaka in Brookline serves up sizzling food mixed with theatrics
The service at most restaurants is more demure. By mid-meal, a young man seated at Osaka’s waist-high, steel-top teppanyaki counter looks a bit terrified. The chef, Chinese and in kitchen whites, is yelling at him from the bar. “Open your mouth, Brendan! Come on!’’ Out comes the squirt bottle, and an arc of alcoholic sake jets into Brendan’s mouth. Fellow diners count along: “One! Two! Three!’’ Brendan makes it to 13 before the sake drools onto his shirt. The chef relents, gesturing and declaiming: “More sake, more honey!’’ Over the course of the evening, many other words will be contorted to rhyme with sake.
Antics like these are not uncommon in US teppanyaki bars, sometimes called “hibachi restaurants.’’ The restaurant genre, and its physical theatrics, were developed by the unpredictable Olympic wrestler and restaurateur Rocky Aoki at his Benihana chain in the 1960s. Aoki had three children by three women at the same time, and once (in 1961) broke my father’s nose at a college wrestling practice. Osaka in Brookline is faithful to the model - the chef’s banter is rated R, and the cooking antics could break your nose.
Knives are juggled, eggs are split in mid-air, cubes of food are propelled from the chef’s spatula toward - but seldom into - diners’ open mouths. (Just try to catch one when you’re 10 feet away and drunk on sake squirts.) It’s great theater and the clientele can wind up out-shouting the chefs.
You’d expect such a sizzle-reel to fizzle on the plate. Surprise. When it finally arrives, the food is the real star of the show.
All the hibachi dinners follow the same script. When it’s time to cook, the squirt bottles return, this time to douse the hot cooking surface until an alarming cloud of flame explodes. While diners regain their composure, white rice and chopped vegetables sizzle in butter, black pepper, and equal squirts of teriyaki and soy sauces. The result, scooped directly onto your plate with the spatula, is an incomparably fresh fried rice that seems designed to accompany dry Japanese beer (Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are all available). Next is the moment you have ostensibly been waiting for: Scrabble piece-sized quality vegetables ($13.95), chicken ($18.95), New York strip steak ($22.95), or even select lobster tails ($28.95) hit the grill and sizzle just-so in the same seasonings as the rice. Servings are large enough for a couple to share, perhaps with an appetizer or two.
The shape of the vegetables, meat, or fish is intentional, in dice thick enough to be hearty, thin enough to maximize tenderness. The grill’s heat is calibrated to sear and brown the morsels at the same moment they cook through.
Somewhere in the back of the building, out of the limelight, a hard-working kitchen crew fills out the menu with good quality non-hibachi dishes. The sushi shines, and a quirky assortment of pan-Asian plates are available. Osaka, Chinese-owned and mostly Chinese-staffed, also has extravagantly plated versions of traditional faux-Polynesian staples like pineapple fried rice ($15.95, served in the pineapple) and flaming seafood ($24.95) that are delightfully light, tasty - and kitschy. Their cocktail cousins, including mai-tais and scorpion bowls, are on the drinks menu and in the restaurant’s sleek post-collegiate bar-cum-night club, hidden in the building’s basement.
The teppanyaki bar is only half the story at Osaka - and half the seating. At the other side of the divided floor, a demurely lit 90-seat dining room, all gold, black, and walnut, is a quiet and perhaps more romantic place to dine.
Osaka’s “special rolls’’ ($9.95 to $15.95 for 8 pieces) exceed any reasonable expectation you could have for sushi at a multi-function restaurant. Classics like dynamite roll, a mixture of salmon, asparagus, crab, tempura, and spicy sauce ($11.95) highlight fresh quality fish in precision presentations. Fusion rolls demonstrate similar skills, perhaps with too-creative sauces (sweet cream, black truffle salsa, “Amarillo sauce’’) and an odd fondness for asparagus. Traditional a la carte sushi, served on white or brown rice, have consistently fresh, clean tastes, from the familiar (maguro/tuna, $6) to the exotic (hokkigai/red clam, $4). Well-curated wine and fine sake lists add class to this phase of the meal.
The best pairing at Osaka remains the first offered: fine dining with flying zucchini cubes, or force-fed sake. Social lubricant with culinary dazzle. After that, anything can happen.