Nichi Bei Kai, 1524 York Road, Lutherville, (410) 321-7090. Open Mondays to Fridays for lunch, every day for dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: will designate a group table no smoking. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: $14-$26.95.
When it first opened, Nichi Bei Kai was the most exotic restaurant Baltimore had ever seen: Waitresses in kimonos. Group seating around a hibachi grill at the center of the table. Chefs who put on a spectacular show while they cooked your meal.
You felt you were somewhere interesting and strange, but at the same time you were eating food that was definitely not strange. The grilled steaks, chicken, shrimp and vegetables (none more exotic than bean sprouts) were appealing to the most conservative tastes. People loved it, and they still do 24 years later. In fact, there are several spinoffs of the original Nichi Bei Kai in the area now.
These days, though, Nichi Bei Kai isn't the first restaurant that comes to mind when Baltimoreans want Japanese food. Although the steakhouse concept is authentic, it's been Americanized: The steaks and vegetables, for instance, are cooked with lots of butter.
But what people don't realize is that Nichi Bei Kai is one of the best sushi restaurants in Baltimore County (not that there are that many). The sushi chef is artistic, the seafood superbly fresh and the selection extensive. Nichi Bei Kai's front room, which used to be just a bar and waiting area, is now also a sushi bar with tables. Here you can get any of the meals that don't involve the hibachi grill: sushi and sashimi, tempura and combination dinners.
A combination dinner called Nichi Bei Kai Bento will give you a pretty sampling of what the sushi chef can do, plus soup, salad, tempura and your choice of gyoza or shumai (two varieties of dumplings) or yakitori (skewered chicken).
The raw fish, beautifully fresh and almost too pretty to eat, is arranged with rice balls, and shavings of fresh ginger and fiery wasabi for condiments. Delicate tempura shrimp and vegetables are fried almost grease-free. And the shumai, dainty little deep-fried pastries filled with minced seafood and vegetables, are an intriguing addition to the combination. Lovely.
You can order any of the sushi dinners at the hibachi tables if your companions happen to want steakhouse food. The waitress will time your meal so you won't be sitting there with an empty plate while the hibachi chef is placing hot, just-grilled shrimp or sizzling chunks of steak on your companions' plates.
You, the sushi eater, will start with miso or onion soup; only the onion soup comes with the hibachi dinners. The latter would be my choice in any case. It's a classic Japanese soup -- more a small work of art than nourishment. The delicate, not-too-salty broth has two or three razor-thin slices of mushroom drifting on top, along with several threads of onion and a few tiny bits of scallion for color.
A very American salad follows, given an Oriental touch with a pleasant sesame oil and rice wine vinegar dressing.
Meanwhile, the hibachi chef, with a great waving of knives, is cutting the tails off shrimp and slicing up zucchini and onion on the grill. Everyone at the eight-person table gets some of these for an appetizer. While you eat them, the chef is grilling your choice of Delmonico, sirloin or filet mignon, chicken, scallops, lobster or shrimp.
Grilled mushrooms and bean sprouts follow. Watching your food being cooked is very appetizing, even if you aren't charmed by the show. The fragrant odors will have you salivating. And how often at a restaurant has your dinner arrived at the table not quite hot enough? That doesn't happen here.
There are problems with hibachi dining. There's not much variety. The various courses, although good, end up looking and tasting much the same, with the same cooking method, much the same seasonings and the same dipping sauces used for everything. And if your hibachi chef isn't careful, he may oversalt your food while he's putting on his show, as ours did.
Finally, how well the evening goes depends to some extent on your tablemates. We've always had good luck before. You want to share your table with people who are friendly but not intrusive. This time, however, we had bad luck. We were seated with a couple who necked off and on through the meal -- and I mean arms fully entwined -- fed each other with their chopsticks, and smoked between courses.