Like landing an airplane, dining with children is essentially a controlled crash. Even the most well-behaved crumb snatchers reach the point where all hell breaks loose, leaving parents scrambling for the check and the door. Strategies for a successful meal out with little ones often mean postponing impending chaos with distraction — toys, crayons, Kindles — or simply holding one's nose and choosing a place where chaos is encouraged, like Dave & Buster's or Chuck E. Cheese.
There is a third option: picking a place where the food is the entertainment. Fondue joints, Korean-style hot pots, and Japanese steakhouses keep parents and children alike immersed in an interactive process that results in far better food than one can score at a typical kiddie palace. And finicky eaters have greater control over what does and does not end up on their plate.
That was the tack we took when making recent dinner plans with friends, who informed us that in addition to their own three progeny, they'd somehow acquired a fourth. The situation provided the perfect opening to visit Wasabi, a new Japanese steakhouse in Beachwood we have been meaning to try. Opened in spring of this year inside a former Olive Garden, the restaurant is part of a small regional chain with locations in Montrose and Canton.
It's been decades since we've seen the inside of an Olive Garden, but it's safe to say that all traces of the former tenant have been expunged. The dramatic transformation has given the space a hip new identity, with ocean-blue accents, club-like music and lighting, and mesmerizing water features. Like its southern kin, the spacious restaurant consists of two main rooms: one devoted to the bar and sushi bar, the other outfitted with 20 grill stations. Two tatami rooms offer a private dining experience for (shoeless) parties of eight at sunken tables concealed behind shoji screens.
Each grill accommodates 10 diners, so our party of eight, including four kids under the age of 8, gobbled up an entire section. (It's important to note that groups will not be seated until everybody is present, meaning that if Mom or Dad is running late, the rest of the brood gets a time-out in the lobby or lounge.)
Often referred to as hibachi-style restaurants, places like Wasabi and Benihana are more accurately teppanyaki joints, where a chef prepares food on the fly on a wide, flat griddle. After being seated around the grill, a server comes around to take drink and appetizer orders. While conventional kid wisdom dictates that food be ordered as soon as humanly possible, here it's a mistake. First off, the standard meal itself is huge. But more important (at least in our case), the appetizers don't reach the table until after the show — and meal — begins.
And begin it does, with a massive column of fire rising from grill to exhaust hood, generated by the teppanyaki chef upon arrival. Fortunately for one of our littlest companions, who is entirely freaked out by flames, we were able to request that our show not commence with the customary blaze — a request that was warmly accepted. Instead, the chef embarked on the now-familiar shtick of bouncing raw eggs on spatulas, forming a wee volcano out of onion slices, flinging food (successfully, I might add) from grill to plate, and my personal favorite: delivering a stream of sake across the table and into my mouth. Not to be ignored, the kids were treated to their own long-distance squirt, with the chef substituting lemonade for hooch.
Dinners consist of mushroom soup, salad with ginger dressing, sautéed shrimp, lo mein noodles, mixed vegetables, rice, and one's choice of half a dozen meats or fish, or any combination thereof. Main selections include chicken, shrimp, steak, scallops, lobster, and filet. Once the food starts flying, it doesn't let up until plates bulge beneath the weight of hot, tasty, and particularly satisfying food. Yes, it's salty. And yes, the white meat chicken is a tad dry. But both the steak and seafood items were prepared perfectly, and there's no denying that the fried rice is pretty much food porn, especially when crowned with house sauces.
Considering the amount of food served, prices are reasonable, with chicken-centric meals going for $16 and steak or seafood feasts climbing to $24. Kiddie meals, which include everything plus dessert, clock in at $9. Unpleasant surprises that popped up on the check included a $2 up-sell per fried-rice order and an 18-percent gratuity. But four calm, enthusiastic children at mealtime? Priceless.
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