Working away from home, living out of a suitcase, far away from home and wife, a man is subject to certain temptations. And just occasionally he gives in to the urge and has to go...
It's a summer evening in BrindleyPlace, the heaving mass of shops, restaurants, clubs and hotels that surround Birmingham's massive International Convention Centre. Predatory young women in skimpy dresses prowl along the canalside, waiting for the clubs to open, bouncers loom outside the Celebrity Balti and the Downunder Authentic Australian Sportsbar with genuine imitation Fosters lager. I'm celebrating my premature release from my current project with a visit to the local Japanese restaurant. But this is no ordinary den of rice, this is the Shogun Teppan-Yaki, the latest branch of a chain of Japanese restaurants (branches in Birmingham and Manchester) which turn cooking into performance art.
The Shogun has dark, stylised decor. On the walls are a series of (particularly bad) western-style oil-paintings of sumo wrestlers. Couldn't they have found something slightly more, well, Japanese? The whole restaurant is very westernised, and every so often something just seems to grate. The greeter sits me down with the menu, takes my umbrella and persuades me to have a glass of Kirin beer. I decide on the Seafood Royale, given that I can get at least half of it on expenses and I can indulge my love of fish without having to worry about Giulia's legendary aversion to it. The greeter asks me, with a certain amount of trepidation, whether I want raw fish. He seems slightly taken aback by my fervent "yes!", but after all, why would I come to a Japanese restaurant if not to eat raw fish? [To eat grilled chicken gizzards and soba -- Ed.] I guess he's had problems with locals ordering the set meal only to recoil in horror when they discover a sliver of raw tuna on their plate.
Eventually, the staff sit me down and tie a bib round my neck (for reasons that will become evident). In case you have never been in a Teppan-Yaki restaurant, there are four or five large, solid tables, each surrounded by chairs on three sides and with a massive steel hood over the table. The need for this rapidly becomes apparent since covering most of the centre of the table is a very large steel hotplate at which the chef does his stuff. Since the tables are effectively giant gas barbecues, they are completely immobile and so they tend to fill up the tables as people arrive, rather than giving everybody a separate table.
Okay, big black stone table with steel top, black chairs, me sitting looking out over the Grand Union Canal into the rain and tucking into my sashimi (slices of raw tuna, marinated in something unidentifiable but utterly wonderful). I do love raw fish, it's hard to explain why, it's something of a combination of taste and texture and the mystique that surrounds the whole sushi thing. And there's green salad. It's okay as salad goes, chopped into small pieces so you can eat it with chopsticks. It's just that the blob of mayonnaise on top of it seems, well, somehow out of place. Couldn't they have tried a little harder? Next to me, a woman and a couple of young boys sit down. At a guess they're celebrating the older boy's A-level exam results. The younger boy is somewhat suspicious of the whole affair ("Mum, how do I cut up my chicken with chopsticks?") and not very taken with his elder brother's tray of sushi ("Raw fish, urrgh!")
Still, it's time for the star turn. The chef appears, big, burly, wearing an apron, chili-oil T-shirt and a Tora! Tora! Tora! headband. He bows, pours oil onto the hotplate and begins to juggle the pair of scrapers that are his only cooking implements. I watch while I sip my soup from the bowl in approved style. A platter of rice appears from somewhere and is placed in a warm area of the hotplate, a bowl of vegetables is stirred into the oil, mixed around, pushed to one side... he spins a pepper grinder in the air for a few seconds, seasons the vegetables and then produces a handful of eggs from thin air and starts to juggle with them. I have heard of an occasion in which a chef was a little too dramatic with his juggling, and lost an egg in the smoke-hood above his head, but to my great disappointment this doesn't happen this time. Instead, he balances the eggs on their ends one by one on the hotplate and proceeds to make a massive omelette which is then dramatically chopped up and added to the rice. Fish, scallops, prawns and lobster rapidly follow, pats of butter and drizzles of oil are mixed with soy and spread over them with the flashing scrapers. The chef spins the pepper grinder high in the air... and drops it. Good thing it wasn't the eggs. In fact, next time I'm walking around BrindleyPlace, I'm going to keep a careful eye out for mysterious foodstuffs falling on me from mid-air. Perhaps there should be a sign, "Beware -- falling eggs", "Men cooking overhead", "Fortean Times fishing grounds"...
"So, Mr Bond, are you ready to cooperate?"
The young lad next to me has opted for the beef as being something reassuringly normal. A plate of raw beef slices appears and is spread out on the hotplate along with the usual dash of oil. The chef grins and grasps a bottle of brandy in one hand, pouring a generous circle of spirit around the beef... there is a great whoosh and a burst of flame that licks right up into the stainless steel hood above our heads. Heads turn from the bar area where several more parties have arrived and are studying the menus ("mumble, did you see that!?") By now, I'm drinking green tea in an effort to stop the waitresses from continuously asking me if I would like another beer (well, it's cheaper than Kirin, and with the occasional conflagration going up mere inches from my eyebrows I'm happier staying sober). I notice a woman in the group out in the bar trying some sake; she makes a face and thrusts it back, I bet she's going to have conniptions when it comes to the raw fish.
Finally, the chef cleans up the hotplate with his scrapers, pushing any remaining bits into a well concealed slot in one corner. Then he smiles, bows and heads off to the next table, leaving the waitresses to tidy up his supply of uncooked seafood. It was delicious, but very filling (not surprisingly, I guess, when you consider the amount of butter and oil that he was spreading all over the table). Still, there's room for dessert, which has to be eaten at a different table since by now hordes of people are descending on the restaurant and there are a limited number of places at the special tables. The people next to me have tempura banana which looks delicious. Since the green tea ice-cream is off, I have fruit salad which is deeply disappointing, especially since it comes with obviously synthetic cream. Why spoil an expensive meal by using artificial spray cream? It seems, I don't know, unprofessional? Actually, the restaurant has a lot of little things like that, the oil paintings, the mayonnaise, slightly too loud background music and so on, which combine to give the impression of something trying to be better than it really is. A shame, really. The food was mostly delicious. Of course, it's only the fact that I can put half the cost of the meal on expenses that reduces it from being outrageously expensive to being merely exorbitant, but when you cost it up as being entertainment as well as food, it's not that bad. Oh all right, it was too much to pay even with the juggling eggs. Maybe next time I'll just stick to the sushi...
-- Steve Davies
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