Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: SHOGUN IN SCARBOROUGH MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.

Dinner at Shogun was a slightly odd experience. The cooking style is what is generally covered by the Japanese word teppanyaki. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, teppanyaki became very stylish, and restaurants opened in cities all over North America, many of them owned and operated by Japanese firms. In my experience, these were always expensive, rather posh establishments aimed at executives on expense accounts.

But at Shogun, surroundings certainly aren't fancy and patrons dress as casually as they would at a small neighborhood bar. My first reaction at finding this style of cooking in such a modest place was a little like finding filet mignon served at a church supper.

There is a hint of authentic Japan in Shogun's interior with small sections of rice-paper screen on the upper part of area dividers. But overall, it is a pretty nondescript place with rough rec-room paneling, uninteresting wallpaper, and well-worn carpet - effectively a great long barn of a room, broken into areas by dividers, with an atmosphere resembling a small-town lodge hall. Dim lighting helps to soften and obscure details.

Shogun's combined eating-cooking areas have large overhead vent hoods with lights above the griddles and look a little like a series of pool tables under suspended lights in a dimly lit room. Chairs around the griddles are the black-vinyl, squared-tube standards found in the waiting rooms of innumerable government offices. The distance between chairs and walls is minimal, so, with each griddle area accommodating eight people, getting in or out can be awkward.

The menu is unusual for such a place. There are only the basic teppanyaki dinners of beef, chicken, seafood, and combinations of the same items. There are no kitchen alternatives such as tempura, and, other than a small order of shrimp done in the same style as shrimp on the dinner menu, there are no appetizers. There are also no desserts. All dinners come with the same small bowl of soup, salad, and brown rice.

The young woman taking orders gave the impression of wishing she were somewhere else, seeming uninterested in what she was doing. So it was neither service nor ambiance that drew people to Shogun. Although I must say that once our cook got going - the cook for each area only shows up after patrons have had drinks, soup, and salad - he proved very personable and entertaining.

We had beer ($2.95) - there is a very limited selection - and sake ($3.75). We had the sake warm as is traditional, although the menu also offers it cold. Warm sake is perfect for teppanyaki, and placing the little pottery flask (tokkuri) along the edge of the large griddle allows you to keep it warm.

Japanese soups are simple, and Shogun's was extremely so, being a clear stock with a few scallion slices, a couple of mushroom slices, and - something I've not seen before - a few bits of fried onion.

The salad, which was not Japanese, consisted of chunks of iceberg lettuce with some carrot slices. It looked, and probably sounds, dull. But here was a sparkling little dressing that gave new life to what otherwise would be a lodge-hall salad, a nicely balanced blend of soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and rice-wine vinegar.

When the chef appeared with his meats, vegetables, sauce bottles, and tools, I knew that if he was skilled at his business, the explanation for people coming to Shogun would soon be apparent, for teppanyaki is a very delicious, albeit simple, method of cooking.

Restaurant teppanyaki is a commercial scale-up of cooking traditionally done in Japanese homes with fry pans over extremely modest cooking facilities - small spirit burners or electric hot plates - right near the table. Many authentic Japanese dishes are cooked in small batches with people sharing and eating one batch as the next is prepared.

One of the special pleasures of teppanyaki is the warmth and juiciness of food right from the griddle. Being gathered around the griddle also generates, particularly after some sake and banter from the cook, a very friendly atmosphere.

The chef went to work, oiling his griddle, then starting his vegetables. His large knife is used to chop the vegetables, zucchini and big, sweet onions, into finger-sized pieces which are doused with flavorings, salt and pepper and a soy- and ginger-flavored sauce. Soon the vegetables were ready, and at the last minute bean sprouts were added. Quickly he scooped piles onto a long spatula and slid them steaming and savory onto the waiting plates of each person.

I thought the taste sensational, and my highly paid research assistant agreed.

Part of restaurant teppanyaki is theater. The chefs become extraordinarily adept with knives and flipping food around and using salt and pepper shakers like percussion instruments. At Shogun, the chef briefly turns on a strobe light during his culinary choreography for an amusing stop-motion effect.

The chef started the meats while we had our vegetables, our filet mignon ($18.95) coming first. The beautiful red chunk of beef was quickly chopped and seasoned and set steaming on the griddle. Fresh, sliced mushrooms were added. The chef skillfully flipped a piece of beef over to my plate so I could tell him whether it was at the point I asked for. The meat was perfect. Scoop, scoop, and he's on to the scallops ($17.95).

The cooking method works well for beef, shellfish, or chicken, but there is a natural affinity here for beef. It produces juicy, savory flesh that virtually melts in your mouth, and I simply do not know a tastier way to have a fine piece of beef.

Our bill was $58.24. Despite Shogun's worn and uninteresting appearance and less-than- enthusiastic service, the teppanyaki portion of our dinner was excellent, as good as I've had at a much more expensive place.

A note to avoid confusion: Shogun refers to its cooking as hibachi style rather than teppanyaki, but I think there is some Americanization at work here, for hibachis are small charcoal barbecue grills.

Shogun Japanese Steak House
238 Gorham Road (Route 114)
Scarborough
883-2151

Food: 4
Atmosphere: 2
Service: 2 1/2
Dinner hours: 4:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday to Saturday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $13.75 to $27.95
Vegetarian dishes: no
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Delicious teppanyaki in a no-frills environment

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