Whenever Kira and I can think of an excuse to spend a lot of money on food, we eat sushi, and whenever we eat sushi, we eat it at Asuka Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi. I wouldn’t say that Asuka has the best sushi in town, but it seems like the best place to get sushi in town. I think highly of the quality of the food as well as the atmosphere, and they don’t charge exorbitant amounts of money. They do serve sushi, however, so don’t expect bargain food. A couple pieces of nigiri (a wad of sushi rice with a piece of something (usually raw fish) on top of it) costs about four dollars, and you’ll pay that at most sushi restaurants except for the really high class ones. If you pay less than that, you’ll get what you paid for. Or perhaps you may just have gotten very, very lucky, and in that case, I want you to tell me exactly where you found that deal.
While we have eaten sushi at Asuka before, we’ve never taken advantage of the Japanese steakhouse (otherwise known as “teppanyaki” or, in this case, “hibachi”) part of the restaurant, so for this visit, we planned to try that out and maybe order a few pieces of sushi because we find it hard not to. When we got to the restaurant, a big sign out front advertised a summer special of all-you-can-eat sushi for twenty bucks. Kira immediately became torn between getting teppanyaki as planned and taking advantage of the special deal. I immediately knew that we had no decision to make. No, we had a moral obligation to get the teppanyaki that night and come back for sushi on the following night.
I don’t know the etymologies of the words “teppanyaki” and “hibachi,” but I’d always understood that “hibachi” meant the actual grill at which the teppanyaki took place. Do not quote me on this because I can’t even decide if I think “teppanyaki” refers to the experience itself, the food served, or something else entirely. I don’t even know if they do this sort of thing in Japan, or if some Japanese-American restaurant invented it. In any case, Asuka calls it “hibachi,” and while I’ve seen better performances and tasted better food at other Japanese steakhouses (though not in Bloomington), I’ve also seen and eaten much worse. If you’ve never heard of teppanyaki before, the experience generally goes like this:
Step 1: You sit down with a few strangers (unless you come in with a large group, which I highly recommend) and order your main dish (usually some kind of meat or seafood), any appetizers, and usually some beer or sake.
We ordered a special mixed deal for two people, including beef, chicken, salmon, shrimp, and scallops. It cost us nearly fifty dollars, but we got an awful lot of food. The chef didn’t seem to scale down the portions just because we’d ordered five different dishes. We definitely got fifty dollars worth of food.
Step 2: After you get your drinks and appetizers, just enough time passes for you to wonder if they’ve forgotten you, and a guy in a chef’s hat and apron wheels out a tray with a bunch of stuff on it, most of which he will never actually touch.
We didn’t order any special appetizers, so we just got a small salad with ginger dressing and an unhelpfully named “soup.” I can see why they didn’t give a name to the soup considering the fact that they only brought us some sort of chicken broth. A couple tiny flakes of some vegetable floated on the surface, but otherwise it tasted exactly like a bowl of lightly flavored water. If you go there, see if you can get them to replace the regular soup with something else.
I counted at least seven different kinds of sauce on the chef’s rack. He filled three trays with some of these sauces and placed them in front of us: a mustard sauce, some soy-based sauce whose flavor has strangely disappeared from my memory, and a “yummy sauce” that looked and tasted suspiciously like thousand island dressing. The chef used a fourth sauce (teriyaki) for cooking all five of our main dishes. I liked the way it tasted on the chicken, but some variety would have made me happier. After teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken, and teriyaki shrimp, I find it difficult to get excited about teriyaki scallops and teriyaki salmon. I never figured out the purpose of the remaining bottles.
Step 3: The chef, who speaks with a strong accent and, if fate smiles upon you, doesn’t actually speak any English beyond his scripted routine, dribbles something flammable all over the grill and, if he feels daring, all over your plates. He does some juggling and twirling with his knife and his big metal spatula before pulling a bit of flame out of the fire underneath the grill and lighting the whole damn thing on fire.
No matter how many times I see this, the flames always seem bigger and hotter than I’ve prepared for. Sometimes the chef lights a bit of vegetable on fire and tosses it across the table onto someone’s plate, setting off a very impressive chain-reaction. I’ve also witnessed the bit of flaming vegetable landing in my friend’s lap instead of his plate. The stuff burns very quickly, so it didn’t really pose any danger, but the chef apologized profusely, and my friend got extra food, so everybody came out happy. (Note: This wasn’t at Asuka. Hell, it wasn’t even in Indiana. -Erik, May 2014) This time, our chef didn’t look more than thirty, and I thought his performance a bit conservative, with less knife twirling, and flames well contained to the grill area. This didn’t really bother me. Every chef has gotta start somewhere, and before he gets really good, I’d rather he spun around his spatula than something on fire with a sharp edge.
Step 4: The chef cooks. This always includes a big heap of vegetables, which the chef has already partially prepared, leaving only the most entertaining parts of the chopping process for the grill itself. This bit can vary depending on where you go and who does the cooking. Simpler displays usually impress me more, and the best I’ve seen involve not much more than straightforward but rapid slicing, dicing, grilling, and seasoning with a lot of panache.
Our chef at Asuka didn’t do much spectacular here other than tossing an egg around on the end of his spatula and building an onion volcano. The volcano gag seemed pretty simple to me the first time I saw it, but I’ve since seen it botched more often than I’ve seen it done properly, so I’ve gotta give our chef points for pulling it off flawlessly. He didn’t impress me much otherwise, and he put way too much teriyaki sauce on everything (except for the beef, which came out quite good), but he always had a lot of energy and a big smile, which goes a long way.
I’ve had better quality teppanyaki, but I can’t think of a place that beats Asuka for sheer quantity of meat cooked at the grill. I still haven’t really found a good place in Bloomington to have someone throw my food around in front of me before cooking it.
On the other hand, Asuka still ranks as my favorite place in town for sushi, even more so now that they’ve got an all-you-can-eat deal. Coming back the second day made both Kira and I quite happy, and we brought along our good friend, Neeraj, who you may remember from our reviews of American Chopstick and Applebee’s. In my opinion, you can’t find a better way to enjoy sushi than an all-you-can-eat deal at a good sushi bar, unless you have enough money that you don’t even have to think about how much everything costs. It allows you to try new items, listen to the chef’s recommendations, and eat all your favorites.
Tuna and salmon nigiri have always reigned as my favorites, which might strike you as odd because outside of the context of raw fish, I rarely order fish at a restaurant. Most places I go to, I enjoy the tuna more than any other item on the menu (especially white tuna, if they have it), but at Asuka, I prefer the salmon. I don’t enjoy maki (those logs of rice rolled up with stuff shoved inside and occasionally stuck on top) nearly as much, but I like variety, so I usually get at least one. At Asuka, I recommend the rainbow roll, though it unfortunately does not appear on the all-you-can-eat menu. The sushi chef prepared everything quite well that night, and any distaste I may have had for any of the items came entirely my dislike of one of the ingredients in general. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the sushi at Asuka. I will now attempt to list everything we ate that night:
- red snapper
- (No yellowtail? What’s wrong with you, 2006 Erik? -2014 Erik)
Looking at the pictures, I can see that 2006 Erik did in fact have yellowtail. – Slightly later 2014 Erik)
- California roll (the old standard)
- cucumber roll
- Nagasaki roll (The menu said it had “fruit” in it; I can neither confirm nor deny this.)
- something with eel in it
- tempura roll
- Fantacy Dream (I could say much about the name of this item, but I can’t actually recall what it tasted like.) (It had whitefish, salmon, avocado, and cucumber. -Erik, May 2014)
We had a good time, and like every good experience I’ve had with all-you-can-eat sushi, it ended with everyone forcing down the last few bites to keep from having to pay the one-buck-per-uneaten-piece fee. We will definitely return to Asuka again before the end of summer.
Erik’s Rating: Yum – 4.5, Ooh – 4, Ah – 3, Wow – 3.5 (Huh?)