VKI Japanese Steakhouse - Dinner With or Without a Show
You need at least some taste for the theatrical to enjoy Japanese food. Culinary tradition requires artful presentation—including the preparation of the food itself. Witness the popularity of sushi bars and steakhouse hibachi tables. Pretty much everyone has experienced the flying knives, tumbling peppermills and airborne shrimp that are a staple of hibachi dining. Many Japanese restaurants that feature this form of cabaret are huge places, nearly the size of movie theatres, the better to accommodate crowds of people around the hibachi stage—I mean, grill.
VKI Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar in Santa Rosa Beach offers a welcome, more accessible version. The restaurant is smaller in size, like a neighborhood spot, tastefully decorated and divided into three dining areas. To the left upon entering are the hibachi tables (we counted eight) where the action heats up. To the right is a paneled-off dining area with tables and booths for smaller parties who aren’t eating hibachi meals. In the corner is a sushi bar with chairs, from which the sushi makers can send out their colorful, edible tidbits.
My wife, the Tiny Diner and I ate at VKI on a recent weekend, ahead of the groups that started showing up as we were finishing. The host asked us our preference and settled us in a booth, with a high chair for TD. Our waitress took a shine to her, and TD to the waitress, meaning she stared in approval at her most of the meal.
The menu offers starters, soups, salads, a lengthy list of sushi rolls, hand rolls, two and three-piece a la carte sushi and sashimi, chef’s special rolls, tempura, katsu, noodle, teriyaki and hibachi entrees. The latter are prepared before the diners’ eyes at the special grill tables. Everything else gets made at the sushi bar or back in the kitchen.
Among the cooked appetizers was rock shrimp tempura. I’m a rock shrimp lover, and wish I could find it more readily available at seafood markets in the area. They’re little and the shells are work to remove, but they sure taste right. VKI does the shelling for you, and offers a little crunchy mountain of them, with a spicy creamy sauce. I don’t think they had cooled off by the time we three had eaten them. It was TD’s first shrimp, and she’ll be back for more. We also shared an Alaska roll with salmon, avocado and cucumber, complete with wasabi and pickled ginger.
Other appetizers are edamame (steamed soy beans), steamed or fried shrimp, pork or vegetable dumplings, fried tofu, spring rolls, beef and scallion roll, fried softshell crab, barbecue squid, tempura, and grilled or fried chicken.
I’ve loved sushi and sashimi since I first tried it in New York in the 1980s, and I wanted to give the sushi makers lots to do, so I ordered a sushi/sashimi combo. My wife went for the cooked food. Generously thinking of something she could share with TD—who is not at the age where she can eat raw fish—she ordered pork katsu. Katsu is pork, fish or chicken in breadcrumb batter, deep fried, sort of a homestyle version of tempura. Both our entrees came with miso soup and a very tasty little salad. It was dressed with a creamy, tangy sauce that I’d love to be able to make, though I suspect it might contain mayo. Oh well…
Our entrees came, and mine looked so pretty I had to take a photo of it. There were chunks, slices and little rolls of fresh, tender raw fish, including tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and I-don’t-know-what-all. There was sushi on rice, and a spicy roll of crunchy tuna. I wondered if TD was curious, but her mother offered her the katsu, and that was it for her, little meateater that she is.
The pork was served in two cutlets, pounded thin, crisp fried and sliced into serving sized pieces. The dipping sauce had a fruity, sweet/tart quality that kept me wondering what was in it. Plums, maybe? The other menu items include soba or udon noodles with meat, fish or shellfish, assorted teriyaki grilled items, steak, chicken, lobster, shrimp, scallop and salmon hibachi combos, and sushi or sashimi using most every fish or land-based protein we have around here, and a few we don’t. The chef’s special rolls have some imaginative names like Green Dragon, Big Bomb, Sexy, Spider, Yumi Yumi, Pink Lady, and Volcano. They all probably look terrific.
We didn’t see any desserts, and we had doubled up on apps anyway, so if VKI offers something sweet, you’ll have to try it yourself. Or just whistle up another roll or piece of freshly made sushi. It can be habit forming.
by Bruce Collier, courtesy The Beachcomber