I admit, at this point, that Japanese food is kind of old hat. You know when any concept has been made into a nationwide chain (Benihana, in this instance), it’s lost that quaint quality of being truly foreign. Now I’m not going to stay on my soapbox for long, because I’ve never actually been to a Benihana. But I have an innate suspicion of huge corporate chains, probably stemming from a traumatic Chili’s experience. I reserve a special animosity for those that try to sell themselves as representing any kind of foreign cuisine. Do you think Olive Garden bears a passing resemblance to anything that really exists in Italy?
Sushi bars, Japanese steakhouses, and teppanyaki grills are scattered around just about every big American city now, but not all of them owe their success to the increasing popularity of chains. Japanese food has a distinct style all its own, no more similar to Chinese or Vietnamese than it is to French. As luck would have it, Oklahoma’s only Japanese restaurants are locally owned. So I decided it was high time to write about this unique cuisine, which is really too important to be overlooked.
The quintessential Japanese restaurant in the city has to be Musashi’s. They cover all of the bases: teppanyaki, sushi, even the robata grill. What’s teppanyaki? Why, it’s the big table that doubles as a flat-top grill! You’ve seen it. I myself have spent many a birthday watching the show where the guy sets the onions on fire and flips an egg into his hat. If you feel like you’ve been there done that, where this place really shines is a little alcove of the restaurant called “The Fire Room.” It’s an open-kitchen bar/grill/patio with a menu separate from the rest of the restaurant. While the main dining room has a Kill Bill vol. 1 vibe, this area is a little more fun and casual, the walls adorned with cases of sake and little wooden “boats” in which sushi is served. Eating here again, I found myself smiling at just how different the food is from anything else you can find in the city.
I’ll start with what isn’t so exclusive to this place, which is the sushi. Musashi’s is right across the street from (and shares a lot of its menu with) its sister restaurant, Sushi Neko. Can you guess what they specialize in? Now I know what you’re thinking: This can’t be! Sushi in Oklahoma? Before you coastal dwellers recoil in terror, I can tell you I’ve had it on a good many occasions and it’s never made me sick. Thanks to fossil fuels and modern refrigeration, we can have our fish shipped in from the same body of water you get it from, and with the illusion of being just as fresh.
On this particular occasion I had the yellowtail sashimi. Those who have had sushi will understand how hard it is to describe to anyone who hasn’t. All I can say is this was some of the best I’ve had (and I’ve had quite a bit at my university in Norman, OK, scary as that may be). It’s fatty, soft, without any of the rubbery briny-ness you might expect from raw fish, and sublime with a dab of soy sauce and wasabi.
The fire room specializes in small plates, or what they call “Japanese Tapas,” so in addition to the sushi, my mom and I shared some edamame and “Lobster Shooters.” Edamame are whole steamed soybeans, salted, healthy (high protein, folks!), and even a little fun as you pop the beans out of their pods.
Lobster Shooters have a very clever sake-style presentation. Each cup contains a little ball of lobster meat, arrayed neatly around a spicy coconut and curry sauce. Pour the sauce in, then eat each cupful as the name implies: bottoms up!
But the crowning dish of this meal, the reason for coming back, was the Black Cod: a buttery, soft white fish that falls apart beneath your fork, its crispy skin charred and caramelized on the robata grill. It’s sweet and rich, without even a hint of salt; about as far from fishy as you can get, standing in stark contrast to the light, chilled sashimi; the fish equivalent of a good seared foie gras.
There’s a lot to The Fire Room I haven’t tried and wouldn’t have nearly enough space to mention here. If you want to have some fun with your food, try “The Rock.” No, not the bemuscled movie star with a facial expression deficiency, but a literal, scalding hot rock brought to the table, on which you can cook your own little sizzling strips of raw meat. The sushi menu is very extensive (keep in mind they can fill a boat with it!) and they have all sorts of grilled goodies to blacken on the robata grill. It’s a fast and reasonably priced place, and perfect if you’re into the tapas-style sampling of many small dishes. Japanese food is truly unique amongst Asian foods, and deserves, chains or not, to be revered in a league of its own.
*Musashi’s is open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.