I got together with a group of friends on a recent Friday evening for my first visit to Hana Japanese Steakhouse in Johnson City. We had a great time, impressed with the “dinner and a show” nature of the hibachi-style meals at this eatery, which opened for business last summer in the shopping center that houses the Kroger grocery store in north Johnson City.
We waited for a brief time in the lobby for our group to assemble and for seating for a party of six to open up around one of the hibachi grills in the dining area. Stepping into the lobby, patrons will immediately notice the fun, ultra-modern decor that features a lot of bright lights of shifting colors and a watery bubble window feature that serves as a divider between the lobby and the dining area in the restaurant. To enter the dining area, patrons pass through a marbled door arch which is under-lit with lights that are constantly changing colors. The walls are made from inlaid dark and light wood panels accented with some faux-flagstone sections. Inset columns decorated with Japanese calligraphy are also placed in sections of the walls, which feature a border of mosaic trim with a black and silver leaf pattern.
Several hibachi grilling stations are located throughout the dining area. These grilling islands have seating arranged around them sufficient to accommodate 18 diners, divided into two groupings. The dark wood chairs feature brown upholstery. We were seated with another party of three, which filled our side of the hibachi grilling island.
The main attraction, of course, is a meal prepared in front of you on the hibachi grill by expert, entertaining chefs. However, the menu offers plenty of other selections, but they are prepared in the kitchen and there’s a separate dining room devoted to patrons not ordering hibachi meals.
The menu offers a selection of teriyaki dinners, tempura meals, noodle dishes, bento boxes and curry rice dishes, as well as a variety of sushi rolls and sushi combinations. The menu also offers a selection of appetizers, including Hana Rangoon, Gyoza, or pan-fried pork dumplings, as well as deep-fried Soft Shell Crab and Rock Shrimp.
A friend and I decided to share a sushi roll to start off the meal. We considered such offerings as a Sweet Potato Roll, Avocado Roll, Salmon Roll, California Roll and Philadelphia Roll. We chose to try the Spicy Tuna Rolls. This item arrived cut into half a dozen convenient bite-sized pieces, accompanied by wasabi sauce and a helping of pickled ginger. Wrapped in sticky rice and seaweed, the mild tuna tasted quite fresh. For a roll labeled as spicy, however, it didn’t offer much kick.
In the meantime, a server was kept busy getting beverage orders and taking down our choices for the main course. When asked, the server gave an enthusiastic recommendation of both the scallops and the filet mignon for the hibachi meals.
I chose to pair filet mignon, cooked medium rare, with shrimp. I ordered my meal with fried rice. Other members of our dining party ordered the chicken and scallops with noodles, the chicken and shrimp with fried rice and the chicken with white rice.
Not too long after we ordered, the server brought out bowls of soup and the house green salads.
The soup featured a savory, brown broth with some snippets of green onion and thin slices of mushroom floating in it. The salads consisted of iceberg lettuce with a tomato slice, cucumber slices, shredded carrots and purple cabbage, all dressed with a sensational ginger dressing.
Once the preliminary courses were consumed, we could sit back and enjoy the show as a chef arrived and began to prepare the meals. He started by distributing saucers of shrimp sauce and ginger sauce to each diner. After passing out the saucers, he began cracking half a dozen eggs to cook into the fried rice. He quickly added the rice, seasonings, a dash of sake and sesame seeds to the mix.
He also prepared the noodles, which cooked much faster than the rice, for the member of the dining party who wanted noodles with his meal. When it came time for preparing a medley of vegetables, he moved some chopped broccoli florets to the side of the grill. He used these bite-sized portions for tossing into diners’ mouths.
Incidentally, I missed mine; it bounced off my forehead and fell into my plate. Some nimbler members of the party succeeded in catching the broccoli bites in their mouths, to the applause and entertainment of everyone at the table.
Our chef definitely had a dramatic showman’s flair. In addition to the broccoli tosses, he also playfully offered a few squirts of cooking sake to several people at the table. I declined the sake, but my friend and others at the table had a great time swallowing some of this Japanese rice wine.
Patrons can see and smell the food as it cooks, which really whets the appetite until the welcome moment when the entrees are finally served onto the plate. Our chef cooked most of the meats at the same time, on different sections of the grill. He held the shrimp, which cook swiftly, in reserve until the last. He served each part of the meal — rice, vegetables and meats — as soon as they were ready, expertly placing each part of the dish on our plates.
I enjoyed the incredibly tender filet mignon, which had been only modestly seared on the grill to keep it medium-rare. The medium-sized shrimp were prepared perfectly, not overcooked at all and nicely seasoned. I received other favorable reports from the other members of my dining party.
I even got to sample one of the scallops. These big, meaty shellfish tasted great with that nutty, not-at-all-fishy flavor that characterizes a great scallop.
Obviously, some patience is in order, since your meal is cooked from scratch. It’s quite entertaining, however, and the time passes quickly. With the encouraged camaraderie of the communal dining situation, there’s also plenty of time to socialize and just enjoy the show as you wait for the food.
If you’re a little nervous about this arrangement, don’t be. The chefs and servers are good at putting people at ease. Members of my dining party all had good laughs while waiting for the food. We all remarked that we could not remember when we had laughed so hard during a meal. For that reason, a dinner at Hana Japanese Steakhouse is a delightful experience for more than just the food. If you go, let them know they came highly recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Hana Japanese Steakhouse, 112 Sunset Drive, Johnson City. 928-0688. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday, 4-10:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon-10:30 p.m. and Sunday, noon-9:30 p.m. Dinner items range from $8.25 to $28.95. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.