There are some restaurants whose formula for success can't be duplicated, although it's not clear why. Other places, very nice places, try. The most obvious Baltimore example is Tio Pepe -- think of all the other Spanish restaurants that have opened and closed over the years.
Nichi Bei Kai, the Japanese steakhouse that's been open in Lutherville for more than 30 years, falls into the same category. There are other Japanese steakhouses in the area. There have even been other Nichi Bei Kais. Once one opened in the Belvedere, but it didn't last long. (It eventually became Kobe.)
There's something about the Lutherville Nichi Bei Kai that works. It's a cozy space, with a bar and sushi bar in front and a small dining room in back. It feels festive for the same reason that Tio Pepe feels festive; even in the middle of the week, every table is filled with people having a good time.
Nichi Bei Kai has changed with the times -- putting in the sushi bar is probably the biggest change -- but in many ways it's still the same restaurant you wanted to go to for a Very Special Occasion when you were a kid.
First of all, there's the show. As most readers must know by now, at Japanese steakhouses you and other diners are seated at a table around a central grill. Your companions might be a local celebrity -- WJZ's Marty Bass was at the table next to ours -- or a family with lots of noisy children. It's the luck of the draw.
The hibachi chef comes out and does a little routine juggling knives and spatulas. He stacks onion rings to form a "volcano," fills it with oil and water and lights the oil, so steam rises from the top. He might throw a shrimp for a customer to catch in his mouth. But give Nichi Bei Kai's chefs credit. They tailor the amount of tomfoolery to their audience. Our chef seemed to realize we were a comparatively staid bunch and spent most of his time actually cooking.
Over the years Nichi Bei Kai has added sushi and appetizers to the menu, so you can nibble while you wait for your table to fill up. (The chef won't start cooking until the seats are filled unless it's a slow night, and I'm not sure Nichi Bei Kai ever has slow nights.) Start with the gyoza, which are crisply and freshly fried dumplings, tempura or sushi. The only problem is that if you're sharing something, it's a bit awkward because you're seated in a row. You don't have room for a central plate.
Dinners come with a delicate soup that has an artistic half-moon of mushroom and thin strands of onion floating in it. A very American iceberg lettuce salad follows, its only Asian note the pleasant sesame oil dressing. (If you like it, you can buy a bottle for $5).
Meanwhile, the chef has heated up his grill and is slicing and dicing his way through handsome chunks of Delmonico steak and filet mignon, de-shelling a lobster tail and adding butter to a boneless chicken breast to make it sizzle. He places little containers of soy-based sauce for dipping and flips two or three appetizer shrimp on the plates in front of each diner. I'm not sure what the etiquette is here, but we always eat the shrimp right away before he's finished cooking and we can safely move the plates off the grill and closer to us.
The chef chops and cooks onions, mushrooms, zucchini and bean sprouts along with the meat, and these too are placed on each plate. A server brings bowls of rice to each customer.
There are pluses and minuses to this kind of dining. It wasn't made for intimate conversation. It gets noisy here. The quality of ingredients is high, but the cooking method and seasonings mean that everything tastes similar. On the other hand, it also means everything is piping hot when you get it.
As for dessert, Nichi Bei Kai doesn't fool around with red bean ice cream or any such thing. You can order fresh, very American desserts like chocolate mousse cake, cheesecake, chocolate ice cream or orange sherbet. My only regret is that you no longer automatically get fragrant green tea, which used to be poured by kimonoed waitresses into graceful pottery mugs to end the meal.
NICHI BEI KAI
Where: 1524 York Road, Lutherville
Hours: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner every night
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12; main courses, $14-$30
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *