For many of us, coming of age in the 80s probably included a trip to the city to visit Benihana, where dinner and a show meant a chef skilled in both fancy knife work and crowd-pleasing humor preparing your meal right before your eyes. I myself donned a fuchsia dress from Lerner with matching plastic bead/gold tone earrings to have my Sweet 16 birthday celebration there. As is the natural way with these sorts of things, hibachi/teppanyaki restaurants are now a lot easier to find and a lot less likely to inspire awe. Still, they remain a fun option for a meal out.
I recently took my kids, ages 12 ½ and almost 11, to Oishi Hibachi Steak House for our first visit. Perhaps remembering my snazzy birthday getup, I almost begged my daughter to change out of her mesh running shorts and school-issued t-shirt before we left. Then, realizing she probably wouldn’t look that out of place these days, I relented.
Oishi occupies a high-concept building originally designed to house Boston Pizza (we hardly knew ye). Its vast enclosed patio and swooping decorative wooden embellishments seem like a decent fit for either establishment. However, the patio appeared unused, with chairs leaning against covered-up tables apparently still in winter mode (we went in July).
The inside of the restaurant is much more lively. A well-stocked bar and dining area on the left side of the building seems like it could cater to a fun, rowdy crowd, while the main dining area to the right is open and inviting for everyone else.
As we were greeted we were given the choice of hibachi seating or a regular booth/table. If I wasn’t planning to review the place, I might have wimped out and asked for a booth to give us a chance to take it all in and plan for a more confident approach on a future visit. But, my mission being what it was, we bellied up to the grill table.
A family of five had arrived ahead of us and we were seated at their table. In retrospect, I wish we had some sort of warning that we could be hampering someone else’s dining experience if we weren’t spot on with our decision-making skills. By the time they ordered their food we still needed a few minutes to peruse the menu. Too slowly it dawned on me that we were more or less one party for that night’s dinner and I hate to think we kept the other family waiting.
Having said that, the service was excellent. It seemed that even if we weren’t super aware of timeliness, our server was on top of making sure everyone seated at our table wasn’t lacking for anything. Another thing to consider is that perhaps our slow ordering wasn’t a factor in when the food came out because it’s all about when the grill chef is ready to perform. After all, when it comes to hibachi the choices boil down to what type of meat (from a few simple selections) and whether one wants rice or noodles.
Besides hibachi, Oishi offers a full sushi menu as well as some typical pan-Asian starters and a page or so of items prepared in the kitchen. Wanting to give their sushi a try, I ordered the Spicy Tuna on Pringles ($6). What arrived at our table looked like four raw tuna meatballs, and sure enough, each sat atop a Pringle chip. They were served on a bed of thinly grated vegetables; my best guess was jicama. They were fun to look at and, I thought, a decent price for a starter. I felt that the tuna lacked flavor and there was altogether too much of it per piece. A sauce on the top may have transformed the dish into something more enjoyable.
From the hibachi menu, I ordered the Sukiyaki Steak ($16.99) and my son ordered the child’s serving of chicken ($8.99). My daughter wasn’t feeling the hibachi menu and ordered Pad Thai ($8.50). My meal came with salad and soup, my son’s just the soup, and my daughter’s just the dish itself. For the salad, they offered a house dressing as well as the standard American varieties, and I just couldn’t pass up the blue cheese. The salad arrived in the same type of cup the soup would later be served in, and was swimming in a chunky, tangy blue cheese (which was just fine by me). My son and I ordered the Hibachi Soup, which consisted of a brown broth with a few slices of fresh mushrooms, a few pieces of thinly sliced scallion, and a hint of french fried onion. Simple as it was, it was flavorful and a perfect appetite boost.
Very quickly our chef was at our table and ready to perform. I won’t share too many details of what happened during the food preparation — if you’ve been to a place like this before, you probably know exactly what that entailed. If you haven’t, you deserve to experience it as a true first timer with no spoilers.
Everyone was given two dishes of sauce which could be refilled as many times as necessary throughout the course of the meal. The darker sauce was ginger-based; the chef called the other one “Japanese yum-yum sauce.” Ginger-based foods have a hit-or-miss flavor for me, but I found the ginger sauce well rounded and enjoyed its barbecue sauce-like texture. The yum-yum was more of a sweetened mayo-based sauce. I can see it’s potential addiction factor; indeed, the family we shared a table with used it liberally and on everything.
The sauces were a good thing to have on hand as the food itself, as I mentioned earlier, has fairly simple flavor profiles — grilled meat, grilled veggies, fried rice (but more on that in a second) and/or noodles. The sauces allowed us to customize the bites as we wished.
The most outstanding part of my meal was the first few bites of fried rice. Several years back, in the intro to a Chinese cookbook I learned the term wok hay, which translates to “breath of the wok.” It describes a taste imparted to food from the wok itself if the chef has the skill to invoke it. Although hibachi/teppanyaki is Japanese and NOT cooked in a wok, I felt sure the rice, before it cooled ever so slightly, had the closest thing to wok hay I’ve ever tasted.
Once the rice did cool slightly, it was still very good. The only problem is that at that point the meat and veggies were still several minutes from hitting our plate. It would have been nice if all the components of the meal were served in rapid succession, but that may have been simply impossible.
The service being excellent, my daughter’s Pad Thai arrived as the rest of our food was coming off the grill. I tried a few bites of it and my impression was that the dominant flavor was maraschino liqueur (of the cherry fame). I’m not sure if there was a reason for this other than a misfiring of my taste buds; whatever caused it, it wasn’t what I was expecting.
Since I got the assignment to review Oishi, I've been thinking a lot about to whom I'd recommend it. It was fun bringing my two oldest, and I think it was also a fine choice to leave my work-swamped husband and fussy-eating youngest at home (the husband did enjoy the leftovers). If I were to go back, I think I'd bring a few girlfriends instead and maybe choose something from their extensive cocktail menu. Oishi probably won't become my go-to Asian food fix, but it's a nice option on the C-U dining scene.
Oishi Hibachi Steak House is located at 2501 North Prospect Avenue, Champaign, and open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
All photos by Rachael McMillan.