If there were such a thing as a neighborhood Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar -- the way there are neighborhood restaurants and neighborhood bars -- the new Ginza in Yorktowne Plaza would be it.
Ginza is many of the things you don't expect in a Japanese steakhouse: It's low key, with comfortable but not exciting surroundings and easy-listening music in the background. People dress casually to come here, and the place is pretty much unknown outside the immediate neighborhood, or so our hostess told us. Weekends are busy, but weeknights you can eat in relative quiet and then linger over cups of hot, fragrant jasmine tea for as long as you want. No one minds.
First you have to find Ginza. As you drive around Yorktowne Plaza's parking lot, you might think the restaurant is called All You Can Eat Lunch Buffet $6.99 -- the sign on the front is about four times as big as the actual name, which you might not notice at all. Inside is a large room with a dropped ceiling. The room is divided into two areas of hibachi tables and a sushi bar. The colors are warm -- peach walls and yellow lighting and blond wood -- but the room itself is a bit minimalist.
Drinks are limited to sodas, iced tea, a glass of merlot or chardonnay, and beer. You can also bring your own bottle, which might be a good idea if you're having wine.
If you've ever eaten at a Japanese steakhouse, you know the drill. The hostess seats your party and others around one of the large hibachi grills. You have a drink, a bowl of soup and a salad while you wait for the table to fill up. A chef eventually arrives who can do clever things like flip a raw egg (an ingredient in the fried rice) and catch it on his spatula, then break it with one swift movement onto the grill.
The chefs at Ginza have just the right balance of entertainment moves and actual cooking skills -- which is, as far as I'm concerned, a minimum of the former and a maximum of the latter.
The soup is a clear, peppery broth with a Zen-like arrangement of one mushroom slice and a sliver of green onion floating decoratively in it. The salad is the usual iceberg lettuce mix with a mayonnaisey dressing sparked with ginger. (If it weren't so unlikely, I'd swear the dressing doubled as our seafood sauce later.)
The real draw, though, at a Japanese steakhouse is that meats and seafood are cooked while you watch, then placed immediately on your plate. If the chef is skilled, you get your food exactly as ordered, and the grilling produces tender, flavorful results. Portions are generous.
Dinners include a couple of appetizer shrimp sizzled on the grill. While the various meats and seafood are cooking, the chef slices, dices and cooks vegetables -- onions, cabbage and zucchini. He seasons them with a firm hand. (You won't need to pour extra soy sauce in the little dish provided.)
You can order more shrimp as your main course, or you can have teriyaki chicken, New York strip steak, scallops, filet mignon or lobster. Then there are combinations for those who can't make up their mind. If you feel like splurging, order the Ginza Special Dinner for $29.95, which includes lobster, scallops and filet mignon.
The chef works his magic knives to take a lobster tail out of its shell and chops it while he's cooking and cubing a fat piece of filet mignon and tossing plump scallops. I was happy with how the chef seasoned the food, but you also get dishes of ginger sauce and seafood sauce (salad dressing?) for dipping.
It's chancy ordering scallops when you eat out because they're so often under- or overcooked. Not so at Ginza. They and the lobster chunks were fat and juicy. And the filet mignon is probably the best choice on the menu, meltingly tender and richly pink as ordered. The high heat sears in the flavorful juices.
Chicken flavored with teriyaki sauce is also a winner, but I'd skip the New York strip steak. It just wasn't as fine a cut of beef as the filet.
With dinner come decoratively carved oranges. They're as much dessert as you really need with this food; but you can also get green tea or red-bean ice cream, cheese cake or American ice cream.
Whatever you decide, don't turn down a mug of steaming jasmine tea. Even if you're not a tea drinker, you can cup it in your hands and enjoy its sweet perfume.
CORRECTION: Because of a production error in last week's review, an incorrect phone number was given for the Oregon Grille. The correct number is 410-771-0505.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 56 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, open for dinner every night
Prices: complete dinners, $12.95-$29.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *