Clang, clang, clang, clang. "Showtime," announced the teppanyaki chef as he struck his spatulas against the grill. The crescendo of sound mirrored my increasing excitement as I was about to experience teppanyaki dining for the first time. The rhythmic beating evoked a meaning that Chinua Achebe might have sought.
And then there was silence. Hugo, the chef, grabbed a squeeze bottle from a neat rack and poured some on the grill. Flames rose quickly and unexpectedly to the tall ceiling. And indeed, looking up, I did noticed some blackened spots against the white plaster. Now, I have seen advertisements for teppanyaki restaurants on television. But I immediately was surprised by the sensation of heat, which seemed elemental against a backdrop of flame and food. A burst of hot air against my face and it was gone. A simple reminder that cooking is all about heat.
Maybe I should start from the beginning.
Royal Tokyo is a teppanyaki Japanese steakhouse style restaurant in the heart of the historic district of Marshfield, Wisconsin. It's located in a very small building with historic roots. Marshfield developed as a railroad town and the building was once a train depot. Many years have passed and the entire time I lived in Marshfield (18 years), I only ever saw the building as an abandoned property. It was covered with grafitti and at least one of its cobweb filled windows was shattered. Nevertheless, my mother insisted on reminding me that when I was little I wanted to buy the building and turn it into a restaurant. It seems that someone beat me to it.
The property underwent a 320 Sycamore transformation.
The bricks have been restored to and are now very agreeable looking. There are now large elegant windows. As we walked through a pair of floor-to-ceiling exterior doors, we entered a surprisingly elegant setting. A stately lounge, complete with comfortable furniture and a fireplace, is situated in the front of the restaurant. The decor helps set the stage by suggesting Japanese influence. The lights, chairs, and cabinet all seemed vaguely and generically oriental. The couch, stuffed chair, and fireplace were standard-issue midwestern and could have been anywhere.
There's a small room that houses a bar set aside across the hall from the lounge. There are two wine bottle stands adorning either wall. The back of the room is decorated with dollar bills provided by guests. Frankly, this all seemed very plebian -- especially in contrast with the elegant decor, snappy service, and high expectations. The counter behind the bar had an orderly assortment of sundry spirits, many of high quality. There was also a sake-dispensing apparatus. Predictably, I had a view complaints with the bar. First, there was no drink menu thus putting the guest in the ackward situation of having to ask the barkeep what is available. Second, the beer selection consisted of mass market brews and was truly uninspired. This being Wisconsin, I expected to at least see some Central Waters beer for the offering. Third, the wine selection was very basic and the prices two high for the quality and level of service provided. Fourth, the wine was served in inappropriate glassware. Red wines ought to be served in glasses that seem to large for the volume added to them. Our wine was served in tiny glasses.
We had hardly consumed a third of a glass of merlot when a server lead us to our table. There, we picked which five-course prix fixe menu we wanted. You really only get to pick two of the courses, because the miso soup, salad, and ice cream dessert are otherwise always the same. I opted for the "turf and surf" special of filet mignon and salmon steak. I struggled to resist their sushi, but ended up getting a cucumber roll ("ninja sushi" with five pieces for $3 - $4) added to my dinner.
The miso soup came first. It was delicately fragrant and served in beautiful bowls that do the soup credit. Surprisingly, it had extremely high clarity. Other miso soups are cloudy. I suspect this one was clarified using egg whites, because it had a off-balance light flavor. Because of the extremely light flavor, the soup seemed very graceful and almost dainty. The seaweed at the bottom of the bowl didn't taste fresh and left me craving better quality soup.
Next came the salad, which was a pleasant admixture of ice burg lettuce and peaches with soy sauce. If my memory serves me correctly, I have never had any of these items together. Nevertheless, I thought that the sweetness of the peaches presented a good contrast to the saltiness of the soy sauce. And the crispness of the lettuce was impressive given the time of year.
My special order of "ninja sushi" showed up next in the lull between courses. Essentially, it consisted of seaweed rolled around rice rolled around cucumber. The course was artfully presented upon a miniature cutting board, to which I have always been partial. Four of the five pieces were expertly rolled and all five were absolutely delicious. My only complaints are that the rolls were cut into undesirably large sizes and that the chop sticks were difficult to use. I am accustomed to ones that are perhaps one and a half times the length of the ones at Royal Tokyo, and I prefer round to square. They just feel better in the hand. The short chop sticks accentuated the large size of the rolls.
It was at this point that our talented chef took the stage. I enjoyed a nice piece of salmon. It was cooked so that there was nice browning on the outside, but the flavor was still very fresh tasting in the middle. I may even have enjoyed it less cooked than it was, but I can only imagine the pressure to conform in Marshfield. Just before service, a lemon was squeezed onto the salmon which was expressed in the final dish. It went well with a glass of riesling that I ordered for this purpose.
Next came the filet mignon, cut into bite sized pieces. Because it was cut up and browned on all sides at the last moment and because the meat wasn't allowed to rest, I expected the meat to be dry and woefully overcooked. To my surprise and delight, the meat remained perfectly tender. Every bite burst with roasted beef flavor. The taste of the dish seemed to me like a concentrated form of the smell of my mother's beef stew dish. There's no other way to say it; the course was delicious.
Next came a course of steamed vegetables, but I was so full by this point that I was largely unable to eat much more. There were the usual assortment of vegetables, served with rice. The vegetables were just slightly undercooked, although I'm glad that the chef was able to avoid the usual vegetable mush that so many restaurants serve.
The meal ended with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl. It had a good vanilla flavor, but was otherwise not remarkable.
My experience at Royal Tokyo was thoroughly enjoyable. As someone who enjoys cooking more than food, I love seeing the dishes being cooked, smelling the cooking, and interacting with the chef. For only $25 a person with wine, the price was right too.
Royal Tokyo is a welcome addition to the Marshfield dining scene.