The second of my eating out experiences this week took me to Ukai, a Japanese restaurant in Okemos, Michigan. Chosen by my 11-year-old nephew as the site of his birthday dinner, Ukai occupies a space which was, in my youth, Pizza Villa. Gone are the murals of gondolas and the menu drowning in red sauce; it has all been replaced by long hibachi tables, low lights, and a sushi bar. Huge props to my nephew for choosing a Japanese steakhouse with sushi for Auntie Ann instead of something more tortuously predictable with a group of mutinous waitstaff singing and clapping the “happy, happy birthday” song at warp speed.
Not since eating at a Benihana in the 80s have I sat at a table and watched a chef slice, dice and do tricks in the course of preparing dinner. It’s kitschy, to be sure, but unless one is jaded to the point of unconsciousness, it’s also amusing. It’s even more amusing in the company of children, who are exponentially more dazzled by the throwing of knives, and the breaking of eggs caught on a Ginsu blade as they descend from the sky whence they were juggled. Three generations of my family sat around the long table/cook top watching this show, laughing and gasping at the tricks, and while it was neither haute nor sophisticated, it was kind of a transcendently wonderful evening for all of us. (My spellchecker informs me that “transcendently” is not a word, but you’ll have to live with it). Both the table-side chef and the kimono-ed waitress were gracious, solicitous, and impressively able to remember the particulars of ten different orders.
Because there was sushi, I had sushi. I had two rolls, something called a “Spartan Roll” that had both cooked shrimp and raw salmon in it, and a Spicy Tuna Roll. I also ordered a bowl of edamame for the table, just because I could. It was all delicious and fresh, as were the miso soup and the ginger-dressed salad. Everyone else ordered a hibachi dinner, and we all watched, transfixed, as fried rice, chicken, beef, scallops, shrimp and fresh vegetables were prepared. The preparation was simple – the proteins were cooked in oil and seasoned with soy sauce – and the timing was perfection as the young chef spread out the large cuts of steak and chicken to cook while he worked the smaller seafood items, flipping them on the plates surrounding the grill as each was completed. I had to taste the hibachi grilled dishes (I’m a professional, you know) and found the beef and chicken tender and flavorful, the fried rice light, and the small, grill-crisped pieces of shrimp particularly lovely. It was really, really simple food, once one got past the flying knives, and when food is that simple it’s easy to tell when it’s not right. This was right, and pleasing to everyone from nothing-spicy-grandma to my own picky son.
Slice-and-dice Japanese steakhouses may be too retro for the true foodie (hereinafter “TF”), but I give Ukai a ringing endorsement. (I have a feeling, by the way, that one could enjoy a terrifically adult meal at the sushi bar, far from the flaming hibachis). I may be a TF, but I cannot deny the pleasure of high quality ingredients prepared beautifully, good service, and a ridiculously happy family.
Ukai Japanese Steakhouse - Okemos
2167 West Grand River Avenue
Okemos, MI 48864
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.