Kabuto puts sizzle in your face

by Brian Clarey

There are nine of us in the lobby, three generations of Clareys in town from their far corners of the country trying to contain the kids in this crowded space that’s like an elbow connecting the main dining room with the swanky barroom lounge.

It’s packed out at 7 p.m. because it’s a holiday weekend and nobody wants to cook tonight, especially when there are people in from out of town, but also because the hibachi grill experience is exactly right for large family parties, especially if there are children in the group.

My kids have never been here before and the boys are a bit skeptical when I tell them that the guy cooks our dinner on the table, particularly the oldest who expresses the concern that his baby sister will burn herself on an open flame.

“It’s not like that,” I tell him, yet he still wears a worried brow as we wait for our table, one that deepens when he peeks into the dining room and sees orange fire flickering skyward from an open tabletop grill.

The idea was suggested by his cosmopolitan aunt, supplanting his own suggestion that we take our out-of-town relatives to his own favorite restaurant, one that involves unlimited trips to the buffet and all the pizza you can eat.

To his credit, he’s trying to keep an open mind.

The wait is modest because we had the forethought to make a reservation – trust me on this: If you want to eat dinner at 7 p.m. between Thursday and Saturday at an actual restaurant, call and make a reservation, even if it’s just a few hours before. If you don’t you have no right to complain about waiting for a table.

Kabuto does not stray far from the standard hibachi restaurant format: a prix fixe menu of seafood, chicken and steaks prepared tabletop by costumed chefs who perform as much as they prepare food. Each dish is paired with soup, a salad, fried rice, vegetables and dessert and there exists a short list of appetizers. Kabuto is also a sushi restaurant boasting more than 30 artfully prepared rolls and a good-sized list of a la carte options.

But we’re here for the traditional package, nine of us spread around the sizzling grill. Baby Girl is slurping soup with one of those funky little Japanese spoons; the oldest son puts his napkin in his lap; the middle child is clinging to his grandpa and sipping a Roy Rogers. We haven’t all sat at the same table in more than two years.

“Get the shrimp,” I tell my oldest son, and he smiles. I go for the ribeye – which has much more flavor than the filet Mignon – with scallops. Most orders at the table are variations on this theme, so our chef’s cart is loaded with beef and shellfish and a couple pieces of tuna as he rolls to his stage.

He fills our ramekins with a cream sauce, a broth and a good squeeze of garlicky hot sauce that’s chunky with diced chilies. After dumping thick discs of onion and long strips of zucchini and squash on the grill, he douses them with soy sauce and dices the whole pile with a few flashes of his long knife, save for one chunk of onion.

He separates the rings of the onion, deftly stacks them in a concentric pyramid, fills it with liquid from a squirt bottle and then sets the thing afire. It shoots flames like a little volcano, and the kids are mesmerized.

There’s more, of course: the lightning-quick butterflying of a pile of shrimp; the flipping of shrimp tails into the tall Asian toque he wears on his head; the deployment of one of those fake ketchup bottles that squirts a piece of red string.

Hilarity ensues.

It’s a lot of food but the kids do pretty well, chowing down with chopsticks secured by wedges of cardboard and rubber bands. To a one they avoid the prix fixe dessert – they can’t get their heads around the concept of cooked bananas – and opt instead for ice cream sundaes, the inclusion of which sealed the deal for my three children.

If they have anything to say about it, we will be back.

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