"When you open the doors, you will forget that you're in Spanaway."
The owners of Samurai Japanese Steakhouse beckoned me with those words.
Indeed, the décor of the restaurant, which opened Jan. 17 on Highway 7 just past the Roy Y, transcends typical teriyaki joints. Fourteen teppanyaki grills meander through the 10,000-square-foot restaurant, designed to resemble an old-world Japanese village. The temple-like glowing red bar is bordered by a pond. The vibe is between charming and exotic, foreign but not fake.
But it didn't take long for me and my dinner mates to declare, "There's no place like Spanaway."
When I decided to switch from soda to sake, the barmaid was flummoxed; she didn't know what kind of sake Samurai serves. She ran to the back room to find out, screaming, "Mama-san" as she fled.
When we were finally seated for dinner after a 1-hour wait, we had to wait for our cook; he was busy pushing a taiko drum through the restaurant. Yeah: cooks and kitchen crew are also the boys in the band, trotted out periodically to entertain diners.
Early last week, I dropped by at lunchtime and was told the restaurant had turned away "500 people" on Saturday night. After dinner Thursday night, I could guess why: only half of the teppanyaki grills were staffed. The restaurant didn't appear to have enough cooks.
I'll admit I'm not a fan of restaurants with teppanyaki grills, where diners are seated in groups and everyone's food is cooked by guys who crack jokes (scallops are "Japanese marshmallows," according to our cook) and attempt to crack eggs by tossing them in the air and letting them land on the blades of cleavers. I enjoy dining with others, but not with strangers. Party of two? Meet your six new dinner mates. That's how these restaurants work. Enjoy it if you like it.
My biggest beef, however, is with Samurai's pacing and timing of cooking. I ordered scallops and lobster ($36.95). There were eight diners at my table; everyone else ordered chicken or steak. My scallops and lobster hit the grill first. Both were over-cooked. The scallops were like string cheese in the center. (It was Brazilian lobster, by the way; the cook didn't know what kind it was, and the waitresses said, "I've never been asked that question," when I asked her what kind of lobster it was. My source at Johnny's Seafood ID'd the crustacean.)
I finished my meal before my dinner companions -- the ones I'd brought with me –- were served. One dinner companion's steak ($19.95) was cooked last. It was ordinary. My other dinner companion ordered chicken ($14.95). It, too, was ordinary. All of our meals came with over-seasoned vegetables that had been squirted with too much soy sauce.
Samurai's cooks could use more seasoning. Sure, the restaurant just opened, but if the cooks are going to crack jokes, twirl knives and juggle ingredients, they should at least be entertaining. The guy who cooked my meal should be tutored on cooking scallops.
I might have briefly forgotten that I was in Spanaway, but I have this lingering feeling that I spent $83.89 (before tip) on what amounted to table-top teriyaki.
I'll be back ...
Samurai Japanese Steakhouse: 19321 Mountain Highway E., Spanaway; 253-846-5557.