Irish Hibachi

I’m ba-ack, Watertown! Or, at least I was last weekend. I couldn’t miss The North Country Goes Green Irish Festival or the Miss Ireland Pageant, right? You know me. I love a good festival. So I blew into town on a breezy Friday afternoon, after a heinous traffic experience due to flooding in Preble. My parents and I hightailed it over to the SOB, where we quickly availed ourselves of slices of Irish pizza, salt potatoes, corned beef sammies and Irish stew before the pageant started. I enjoyed my Irish pizza (white pizza with corned beef and shredded potatoes) and salt potatoes, but I wish I had gone for the bangers and mash. A woman passed by me with a plate of them right after I finished eating, and I was gripped by both dinner envy and the intoxicating smell of rich brown gravy. God, I cannot get enough carbs this time of year. What is that? An Irish Blessing or the curse of a winter that just refuses to end?

A medley of scenes from this year’s Irish Festival in Watertown

Saturday night, we were excited to try the new Japanese Steakhouse, 1025 Ruyi, on Arsenal Street. So excited, in fact, that we showed up there around 5 p.m. for dinner. I’m thinking this early start time was a good strategy, though: I’ve heard this place is packed every night. I was immediately taken with the gorgeous décor. Someone has put forth a considerable effort to make Ruyi feel far away from the hustle, bustle and fast food joints of Arsenal St., and transport guests to another locale. And that effort has paid off, because I absolutely felt transported from the muck and drizzle outside.

A muck and drizzleless interior shot of 1025 Ruyi

My parents are not down with the sushi revolution, so we requested a hibachi berth and were granted one in less than 10 minutes. Again, a warning: come here later on a weekend evening, and you will be waiting for such seats. One flaw was apparent as soon as we sat down: the chairs at the hibachi tables are oddly low. I don’t know if this is to discourage patrons from touching the flat-top or what, but I’m pretty tall, and I felt like I needed a booster seat. One more negative came with the chopsticks, which were the cheap, wooden, pull-apart variety. I’m kind of a chopstick snob, and I really, really prefer porcelain or fancy wood types. When an entrée can cost upwards of $25, which some at Ruyi do, I just expect a higher level of service and at an Asian restaurant, chopsticks are an important part of that equation for me.

But the two negatives were followed by a positive: the Osumashi soup. This traditional Japanese steakhouse clear soup was made special with the addition of fried onion strips, as well as the more rudimentary mushrooms and scallions. It was simple, but enjoyable, with a light saltiness and just enough depth. I was not as enthusiastic about the salad, with the also-traditional ginger sesame dressing. The lettuce, carrots, raisins and cucumbers were fine, but for me, the dressing didn’t measure up to those at the Japanese restaurants in the Southern Tier.

The translation of Osumashi is shimmery and yummy, I believe

One more oddity before I recap the entrées, which were by and large excellent: the menu said all hibachi entrees came with a shrimp appetizer, but no one at our table received that. Again, when paying for a $16 - $26 entrée, I expect to be given all the food promised on the menu. Not that the portion sizes weren’t satisfactory – I had more than enough food on my plate – but it’s the principle of the thing.

Enough bellyaching: my steak and shrimp were fabulous. The steak had a huge beefy flavor: tender, peppery, savory, delicious. The shrimp were over-the-top: large, cooked to absolute perfection, and seasoned with a rich brown sauce big on flavor but not heavy on salt. Have you heard the term umami? It’s the mysterious fifth taste, after salty, sweet, bitter and sour, and is indicative of Asian flavors. Umami translates literally to savoriness, which is what this brown sauce is all about. Mom also had shrimp, and was beyond thrilled. She ordered her chicken and shrimp entrée without soy sauce, which she sometimes can be sensitive to – the wait staff were wonderful with this special request, cooking her entrée up in the kitchen and bringing it out right when the rest of us were enjoying the first scoops of food hot and fresh from the hibachi. My Dad splurged on the steak and lobster, and his seafood, too, was treated to the wonderful brown sauce.

What big shrimp you have!

Vincent, our Hibachi chef, was not as polished as some I have seen. His egg cracking high jinks were a little shaky, and his many attempts to launch bits of zucchini from his spatula into our mouths, while entertaining, were weak. But then he rewarded us with sprays of sake and all was forgiven. The fried rice served with the entrees had really good texture – cooked just right, crunchy bits here and there – and the veggies were plentiful. The tender-crisp mix of zucchini, broccoli, carrot, onion and mushrooms was well-cooked and seasoned. For my tastes, I could have used more mushrooms and fewer carrots, but that’s just me. Incidentally, one of the little sauce dishes on the table (Vincent called it “yummy” sauce) was terrific with the broccoli. It was the white sauce; try it! In Mom’s mix were red onions instead of the yellow we had, and she said they were so yummy, she could have eaten an entire bowl of them with white rice.

Chicken from the kitchen. Say that five times fast.

Dad took them up on an interesting option: noodles instead of rice with his steak and lobster. I’ve never heard of this offered before, and I was intrigued. Turns out, he made a great choice. The noodles were of the lo mein ilk, dressed in that same fab brown sauce and sizzled on the flat top right along with the rice and veggies. I would order these again. They were fantastic.

We forgot to take a pic of Dad’s plate until he had already been tasting. Oops.

Overall, we were really pleased with the food and atmosphere at 1025 Ruyi. Dad’s initial weigh-in was a 9.5 on the BHS scale, although I’m backing off from that a bit. I think there’s a little refining that needs to happen here before high points can be awarded. A really nice touch that a lot of Japanese restaurants offer is hot finger towels when you first are seated – that would be a welcome addition. Another positive add would be complimentary green tea at the end of the meal, either or both of these would elevate the experience, and add to the overall feel. Again, when you weigh the price of the entrees, little perks like fancy chopsticks, hot towels and green tea – in addition to great food – make for an exceptional evening. If 1025 Ruyi added any of these, I think they could be considered up in the 9 range. As is, I’m giving them a 7.5. I will be back in the coming months for sushi and traditional Japanese fare, and I’ll let you know how the experience goes. In the meantime, I recommend giving it a shot, and definitely trying the shrimp and noodles on the hibachi. These were the absolute highlights of our meal.

It’s fun to say umami

The opening of a bonafide Japanese restaurant in little old Watertown is pretty groundbreaking. I’ve been sad for a while that House of Gee disappeared before I was old enough to really develop a taste for Asian cuisine. From the crowds packing it into 1025 Ruyi every night, they don’t need fancy chopsticks or free tea to entice. But I think adopting some of these finer service points could be the difference between new-restaurant excitement and true longevity. It’s going to take loyal customers to maintain the beautiful interior and all the hibachi tables inside this new hotspot, so I hope they are able to translate looky-loos into lifelong patrons.

Have you eaten at Ruyi yet? What did you like there? Sound off in the comments below. Also, follow BigHungryShelby on Twitter, or join our Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group online! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS - I would be remiss if I didn't mention Japan's devastating natural disasters of last week. Of course, our Big Hungry hearts are with the Japanese people. It occurs to me that many mom-and-pop-owned Japanese restaurants in our communities will probably have fundraisers in the coming months for disaster relief. I know I'll fill my belly up with sushi and tempura while contributing to the cause. Won't you?

1025 Ruyi Japanese Steak House on Urbanspoon

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