The next level in Japanese cuisine is here. Introducing teppanyaki dining -- that novelty of restaurant dining that's three parts cuisine and one part theatre. I say theatre because diners get to watch their orders being prepared right in front of them. The iron grill, where all the magic happens, is surrounded by tables where patrons dine. At the centre of it all are the chefs who flip and sizzle steaks or perform a virtual hara-kiri on the breastplate of a chicken -- right before your eyes..
This style of Japanese cooking has been delighting Westerners for decades (which is why in places such as Tokyo, teppanyaki carries a "touristy" appeal), and, as of recently, Jamaicans are able to partake in this culinary showpiece thanks to the Royal Palace in Kingston's Liguanea area.
The restaurant, featured recently in this newspaper, offers both Chinese and Japanese cuisine. However, the Japanese kitchen is not yet fully open.
"We're aiming to have it open by the end of [June]," says Devon Kerr, manager of the restaurant.
What is open to diners, however, is the teppanyaki table. There are two tables actually, which, in total, can accommodate roughly 20 diners at any one time. For that reason, the Royal Palace only takes reservations for the teppanyaki tables. They have been open for roughly a week now, Kerr says, and have been busy most nights.
"We've been letting people know mostly through word of mouth," he says. "Feedback has been great. A lot of people are coming and having a good time."
The novelty factor of the teppanyaki may be what has some of these patrons enthused. Just the other night, Kerr remarks with a hint of pride, a table of delighted patrons kept gushing that no other restaurant in Kingston, including certain other prominent Japanese restaurants, has something like the Royal Palace's teppanyaki table.
Novelty is all well and good when it comes to attracting customers, but it takes genuinely good food to keep them coming back -- a mantra to which Kerr readily subscribes.
We at Thursday Life do too, which is why we were eager to get a look at how teppanyaki at Royal Palace is done.
The Japanese eatery at the Royal Palace is on the second floor of the restaurant. The décor is charming if a bit subdued (owing, perhaps, to the missing finishing touches that will accompany the official opening). The teppanyaki table, however, is illuminated by the amber lights of Japanese lanterns hanging from a neat latticework of dark cherry-coloured wood. A large iron grill is almost completely surrounded by a set of tables covered over by fuchsia tablecloths.
At 1:45pm, Chef Jong appears with the meals on this day's menu: beef steak served in steak sauce; chicken steak with steak sauce; shrimp served with chili sauce and Japanese fried rice. It's an elegant presentation, with each meat nestled next to an arrangement of onions, sweet peppers and shredded carrots . . . except the meats are raw.
The grill is lighted. A few minutes later a drizzling of oil is poured on the surface. It's a few minutes shy of 1 pm and the grill is hot and ready.
First go the shrimp, six of them, lined along one end of the grill, sizzling raspily and slowly changing to a shade of peachy red. It's not nearly as exciting as we'd thought it would be. But soon the chicken is on the grill, then the steak, then a heaping of rice and shower of sliced onions and peppers, cucumber, carrots, and even cabbage. Chef Jong, along with Christopher Cherrington, expertly work the grill, zipping from one meat to the next, drizzling steak sauce here and sprinkling garnishes there.
At 1:20 pm all three meals are ready. Fresh off the grill, the chicken is hot, moist and tender and is bursting with a lovely peppery flavour in the teriyaki sauce. The steak achieves that tenuous balance of being cooked through yet juicy. You may have to add a bit of salt to taste, but that lovely beef flavour delights the palate.
It remains to be seen how this new addition to the restaurant scene will sit with Kingston's very discriminating diners. But it's off to a good start.