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Japanese steak house displays good food, poor service

Bisuteki Japanese Steak House

777 Memorial Dr., Cambridge.

Phone: 492-7777.

Entrees: $1620.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

In recent years, between cooking-at-home and excessive fast-food consumption, it seems that dining in American restaurants has been elevated to somewhat of an art. As customers, we expect a good meal and a courteous staff, but we also demand something that's out of the ordinary. Therefore, my recent trip with a friend to the Bisuteki Japanese Steak House seemed like a logical choice to break out of my commonplace dining habits. Located on the first floor of the Howard Johnson Hotel (not in itself reason enough to condemn an eating establishment), just beyond the now-defunct Stop 'n' Shop on Memorial Drive, Bisuteki promises a lot for its patrons but only partially satisfies them.

The main entry of Bisuteki is a bar area from which customers may order a drink or a small order of sushi before the meal after they have requested a table in the restaurant. The sushi bar items include hamachi (yellow-tail tuna), uni (sea urchin), and murigai (giant clam); they range from $3 to $5 for each two-piece order. Unfortunately, my fixed budget only allowed for the price of the hibachi grill dinner, so I had to sate my appetite with the snack mix at the bar. The atmosphere is rather tight and indistinguishable from countless other bar establishments, although the bartender was courteous and attentive.

My guest and I waited for about 20 minutes before getting a table, which is fair considering that I did not make reservations. The seating arrangement puts eight people at an oblong table that surrounds a Japanese hibachi grill. From there, we waited another 10 minutes before our table was filled to capacity and our orders were taken. The menu offers a standard selection of grill favorites (steak, chicken, shrimp, and scallops), starting at $16, each served with vegetables, soup, and salad. The dinner menu also faces a prominently-displayed specialty drink menu (average price $5).

Each person was presented with a hot towel before the meal began; this unexpected touch underscored the restaurant's notion of hospitality, with soft pop melodies flowing from the overhead speakers and waitresses in kimonos tending to the customers. The soup was a salty broth with a few onions and mushrooms for flavor, while the salad was lettuce and radish in an excessive amount of ginger vinaigrette dressing; neither was very impressive or satisfying.

The presentation of the main course of the meal was certainly the highlight of the evening. Our chef cordially greeted us and promptly went to work, heating up the grill and frying some shrimp as an appetizer for everyone's meal. The steak and chicken that I sampled, along with the zucchini and mushrooms, were quite good. The meal proceed in a logical way, as well; for the chef prepared each person's meal in stages, according to the distribution of food between different orders (i.e., steak, steak and scallops, steak and shrimp, etc.). The personality of the chef may vary widely from table to table: While our chef spoke very little, the chef at an adjacent table was busy dicing and tossing food through the air and over the grill, much to the delight of his audience.

When it came time for the check, the waitress was busy tending to another table. Over 20 minutes passed before she realized that my table's patrons were ready for their checks (taking the multiple credit cards held in the air as a visual cue). Such apparent ignorance can be rationalized by knowing that the Sunday evening of my visit was "Children-under-12-eat-free" night, and that the managers and waitresses probably had their hands full keeping children away from the stoves or from wandering behind the main podium to the cash register. Nevertheless, the people at my table wasted no time in getting their bills paid (except for the group that was unfortunate enough to ask, and wait, for ice cream).

In all, Bisuteki Japanese Steak House was a disappointment. Perhaps I would have been better-advised to try the sushi as an appetizer to quell my appetite before the main meal. I also should have attended on another evening when kids were not the main attraction with dinner. However, I get the feeling that the proprietors of the restaurant are living entirely off the reputation of food and atmosphere, not service - not a healthy attitude to justify with the above-average price of their meals. As a college student, I suggest that you don't go unless you have a fair amount of time, and money, on your hands.