Bonsai Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar
1977 E. Murray-Holladay Rd., Holladay ; 801-272-2288
Mediocre and pricey food doesn't detract from having a good time by being entertained by utensil-throwing chefs.
Cuisine: Japanese, Sushi
Hours: M-F, 4:30-10 p.m.; S, 4-10 p.m.; Su, 4-9 p.m.
Recommended Dishes: Shrimp tempura, unagi nigiri, Imperial roll, rainbow roll and caterpillar roll.
March 7, 2007
Floor-show nostalgia makes the cut
By Lesli J. Neilson
HOLLADAY -- I fondly remember childhood birthdays spent running back and forth between bites of pizza and games of Pac-Man at Chuck E. Cheese's; or me sipping Shirley Temples in tiki glasses while watching the rain show at The Hawaiian; or being wowed by the chefs at Benihana of Tokyo.
Though Benihana first popularized the teppanyaki floor-show experience in the U.S., one of its many knock-offs includes Bonsai Japanese Steak House. Owner Calvin Luu opened the first Bonsai in 2001 in Sandy. He opened a Holladay location in January, taking over the space that was previously Souper Salad. The new restaurant also has a sushi bar.
And so, partly out my duty as a reviewer and partly in an attempt to recapture that inner child, I invited a group of friends to come along to Bonsai.
Many of them had already been to the Sandy location, saying it's a great place to bring kids. Coincidentally, two of us happened to have February birthdays.
Twelve immense stainless steel hoods loom from the ceiling, dominating the rectangular space. Six freestanding tables cluster around the 10-seat sushi bar which is anchored to one wall.
Shoji screens, done in natural wood, divide cooktops in groups of two or three. Asian lanterns, pendant lighting, Asian-themed art and a plasma TV over the sushi bar round out the Spartan decor.
With drink orders taken (sodas, $1.95; beer, $4.25 to $7.75; wine, $16 to $32 per bottle, also available by the glass) and cooktop warming, we settled into our increasingly hot surroundings. (The vent doesn't get turned on until the "show" starts.)
Bonsai's menu is Benihana-esque in that entrees include onion soup, salad, vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms and onions on one visit) and steamed rice. Upgrade to miso soup for an extra $1.75; the onion soup was overly salty.
The salad was an ordinary iceberg variety with a tasteless tomato wedge and cucumber slice with a watery dressing.
Reminiscing about old times, several of us failed to read that steamed rice came with our entrees. Our server asked us if we wanted fried rice or fried noodles with our meals — many of us said yes. This added $1.75 or $2.50 per entree to the bill. It would have been better if the server had phrased it like this: "Though your meal comes with steamed rice, would you like fried rice or fried noodles for an additional charge?"
The list of entrees has myriad combinations. Pick a protein — prime cuts of filet mignon and New York steak, chicken, fresh Alaskan salmon, shrimp, scallops (the latter two are previously frozen but surprisingly tender), for example — and make surf go with your turf or vice versa. Prices range from $16.75 to $29.95. Or go for one of four "special" entrees ($24.95 to $31.95) to get three proteins.
If you still want to order appetizers, the shrimp tempura ($6.25) is noteworthy. Four pieces of shrimp with an onion ring and sweet potatoes are lightly breaded, greaseless and come with a sesame seed-flecked dipping sauce.
As for Bonsai's sushi, it has its high and low points. Freshwater eel (unagi) nigiri ($4.50) was markedly better than dense, cold egg (tamago) nigiri ($3.50) and fishy mackerel (saba) nigiri ($4). Unfried rolls fared better than deep-fried rolls. The Imperial roll ($10.95) with shrimp tempura, cucumber, unagi, avocado and sweet eel sauce; rainbow roll ($10.95) with crab, avocado, cucumber, shrimp, salmon, yellowtail, tuna and flying fish roe (tobiko); and caterpillar roll ($10.95) with unagi, cucumber, avocado, tobiko and eel sauce are all recommendable.
Once our chef arrived and the "show" began, I couldn't help but see him as our "mother" bird and my friends and I as "baby birds" as he doled out little bits of this and that to each of our plates.
Between stunts such as flipping around utensils, tossing eggs up in the air and catching them in his toque and flinging bite-size pieces of food at my open-mouthed friends, our Bonsai chef systematically cooked and served noodles, fried rice, vegetables, seafood and then meat — cooking the latter to requested doneness and slicing it into chopstick-friendly cubes.
No matter that during his floorshow, our chef managed to let a spatula inadvertently go flying toward a friend (fortunately it missed), failed to catch a raw egg (which dropped onto the cooktop) and missed a friend's mouth while tossing a shrimp to her (it landed squarely on her cheek).
And lest we forget, two of us had a birthday. Tambourines and a gong were ceremoniously passed around. My friend and I got sung to, got our picture taken with an instant camera and received cups of less-than-desirable vanilla ice cream with canned whipped topping and chocolate sauce ($2 for vanilla or chocolate; free if it's your birthday).
Being thoroughly entertained and catching up with old friends, it didn't bother me one bit that the food was far from spectacular. Bonsai had succeeded in wowing the kid in me.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.