A culinary circus

Amadeus Smith

Houaj Vue, hibachi chef at Hibachi Japan Steak House in Cuyahoga Falls, entertains while preparing dinner for guests. CAITLIN SIRSE | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Ron Soltys

Danny Blatt threw sparks from his waving hand above the 2-foot flame shooting from the sizzling steel surface.

As the fire wielder manipulated the flames, leading them around with only his fingers, the tumblers flipped about in the open air.

This circus is absent of clowns and lions, though. And in this circus, the man moving flames about the stage isn’t wearing a shiny, sequined suit, but rather a chef’s coat. And the tumblers are lemons and shrimp.

Instead of dinner being served from a kitchen tucked behind swinging doors, Hibachi Japan Steak House in Cuyahoga Falls gives guests the opportunity to watch their dinners prepared right in front of them. The table they are seated at has a metal surface stove to exhibit a trick-filled cooking method that includes fancy knife work, high flames and flying food.

This circus-type act filled with flips and flames is a little different than a regular big-top act — it takes place on 550-degree steel and concludes with dinner.

Co-owner Morgan Yagi said his father, Paul Yagi, started the business in 1975 and moved it to the Akron area in 1990.

Yagi’s father was a sports agent in New York in the ’70s and wanted to start a new career. He realized running a Hibachi restaurant was his next move when he went to one with his client: Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

Today, the restaurant can entertain parties of up to 75 people.

As 5:30 p.m. rolled around and the crowd began to grow, Blatt, a 20-year-old cook, rolled his cart holding meat, vegetables, oils and spices to the table.

All around the restaurant, cooks were juggling knives and spatulas, catching the utensils behind their backs.

Not a moment after Blatt greeted his guests, he began to twirl the long steel spatula and fork. Each twist and juggle produced a punctuated metallic note as the tools grazed the metal surface.

Blatt, who was born in South Korea and adopted by Rick and Margaret Blatt when he was 2 months old, said the show is all about timing. He said the routine includes saving the steak and chicken last so the meat is hot when it gets to the plate. Rice, vegetables and seafood precede the chicken and steak.

The timing and order to cook the food are part of the routine taught at the restaurant.

“I learned here in the restaurant on off days,” Blatt said. “It was like an apprenticeship.”

Blatt started as a busboy then began serving before he trained to be a cook. The apprenticeship, as Blatt calls it, involved observing different cooks at their tables.

He learned the routine in about four months, which Blatt, who grew up in Tallmadge, said is the usual amount of time it takes. Once he had finished observing, Blatt took his first table.

“There are no practice runs at all,” he said.

Blatt ran into some trouble at his first table.

“I shot a piece of rice in my eye,” he said. “It was pretty embarrassing.”

But now, at a year of experience, Blatt has the method down.

Once you learn the routine, he said, the cook can start making up new tricks.

“It’s all pretty elementary, but you just come up with things on your own,” he said. “You add in your own flavor.”

At the table, Blatt stacked thick, raw onion rings on the steel. After forming the mountain of onion, he sprayed the hot surface with oil and vodka, forming a stream of liquid leading to the onions. He then put the oil/vodka mixture inside the onion stack. He set fire to a separate puddle set off an inch from the stream.

Sweeping his hand through the oil, the fire is led to the onions. The liquid inside caught the flames and fire shot out through the circular top like the first blast of a volcano.

For extra flare, Blatt spun, picking up a handful of pepper and dropping it into the flames shooting from the onion stack. The grains of pepper instantly turned to sparks.

Blatt said most tricks should have some other culinary purpose, referring to a trick where he throws salt into the air instead of simply sprinkling each item individually.

“I’m already going to be seasoning it, so I do a trick with the salt,” he said.

Other tricks are simply for show, said customer Jessica Penko.

“A few of the cooks throw pieces of burning chicken in their pockets,” Penko said.

He introduced some acrobatics to the show, beginning with a traditional trick, flipping shrimp on to each guest’s plate. But once again, Blatt added his own flavor to the show.

Using only his spatula and fork, utensils that, for the most part, have become his hands, he lined up a half a lemon at the edge of the spatula. With a quickness used in the other tricks, Blatt began to flip the bottom of the lemon half inches away from each patron. As the citrus tumbler spun through the air, he slapped the cooking surface with the bottom of the spatula for extra effect. He flung the lemon half up a little higher on the last flip and caught it on the prongs of the fork.

Yagi, who owns the restaurant with his brother Allan Goetz and mother Tackiko Goetz, explained that the origins of hibachi cooking are misunderstood. The name “hibachi” actually originated in the United States.

“It’s about as Japanese as pizza is Italian,” he said.

In Japan, the tabletop cooking method is known as teppanyaki, Yagi said.

For Yagi, the cooking method is used to entertain guests, but it’s more about the food.

“A lot of places like this the equation is flipped,” Yagi said.

Customer Mary Maillis said she likes the fact that the cooking occurs outside the kitchen.

“You know what you’re eating because it’s cooked right in front of you,” Maillis said.

After cleaning off the hot steel with a damp towel, Blatt rolled the cart away from the table, leaving the guests to the feast and no trace of the flames and shrimp-spinning that just preceded the meal.

Step-by step sushi (Caterpillar roll)

Step 1: Take a handful of rice and pat it down evenly on a 7-inch by 4-inch piece of seaweed. Sprinkle sesame seed on top of rice.

Step 2: Flip it over so the back of the piece of seaweed is face up. Spread a small portion of wasabi on the seaweed. Line shredded cucumber and cooked eel lengthwise in the center of the seaweed.

Step 3: Roll it and tuck it under so the rice is on the outside. With a bamboo sushi roller, mold the roll into a square shape, leaving the length the same.

Step 4: 4 Slice and lay avocado atop the roll. Cover the roll with Cyran Wrap and spread the avocado out lengthwise with the bamboo mat. The Cyran Wrap will help with control.

Step 5: Cut the roll in half with a wet knife. Make sure hands and the knife are wet the entire procedure so as not to stick to the rice. Line the rolls so the halves square up. Cut in half a second time. Cut each of the four pieces in half once again to render eight pieces.

Real Quick

Hibachi Japan Steak House, 2251 Front St., Cuyahoga Falls, is open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Friday; 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The price ranges from $11 to $30, and the filet mignon/shrimp combination is the most popular order.

Contact enterprise reporter Amadeus Smith at [email protected].