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Teppan-Out

No-frills thrills at Osaka

If your idea of an authentic Japanese meal involves sitting around a Teppan-Yaki table and watching a knife-wielding chef's floorshow-with the requisite grand finale of flipping a piece of shrimp into his apron pocket-then chew on this: Teppan cooking is more or less a Japanese take on Western food. Outside hotels or other touristy spots, you're less likely to find a Teppan-Yaki table in Japan than stateside.

By the way: Ever notice that when it comes to Japanese cuisine in Orange County, the most memorable meals seem to be at the most stripped-down places-no karaoke bars, no private rooms and no artificial waterfalls? My favorite sushi bar is in a tiny room where most of the square-footage-and focus-is devoted to the sushi bar. Tables for people who want cooked food are few, almost an afterthought.

Osaka takes this approach to Teppan, and I find the results more pleasing to my palate and wallet than your Benihanas or more upscale establishments. Eight Teppan-Yaki tables are practically stacked atop each other, abuzz with activity. Behind the sushi bar, the bored chef looks at his watch, waiting for customers. A few non-Teppan tables are crammed into a corner.

First things first: lubrication. Osaka-named after Japan's western commercial center-is not commercialized enough to serve hard drinks, but they do pour sake, beer and wine. I went for a bottle of Sapporo ($2.50) and told the waitress to keep 'em coming.

For appetizers, our table put that sushi chef to work. The California roll ($5.50) is bigger than most and quite tasty. But much better for the same price is the yellowtail roll, in which a generous portion of the raw fish is wrapped up in seaweed with rice, avocado and cucumber. Better for sharing is the Samuri sushi appetizer ($7.90), which includes your choice of sushi (three pieces) and roll (four pieces). For non-bait eaters, the Osaka tempura appetizer ($5.75) includes delicious, lightly breaded shrimp and vegetables.

While we chowed on and washed down the appetizers, our Teppan chef-a happy fellow who spoke in broken English (I believe it's required by law)-set out the ingredients for fried rice. Spinning an egg on the hot surface, he said, "Look, Japanese egg roll." Jokes like these also seem to be required by law.

Teppan plates come with rice (fried or Caucasian), mixed veggies and a few table-cooked shrimp. Set before each diner are two small plates: one contains hot mustard sauce for meats, the other ginger sauce for seafood. Don't bother giving me the mustard because-after sampling every conceivable dead critter Teppan-style at other restaurants-I hereby decree that scallops are the most delectable entrťe. Osaka did not disappoint; mine were hot and tender and melted in my mouth ($16).

Based on theft and comments from others at my table, I can report that the hibachi steak ($14.75) was perfectly prepared and full-flavored. The same went for the cow portion of the steak and prawns ($17.75), but the big, plump shrimp was an even bigger hit. Unfortunately, the teriyaki chicken ($12) was dry.

As we complimented the Teppan chef for a job well done, he mentioned that after work and a few hours' sleep, he'd be off to juvenile hall to cook Sunday morning breakfast for the wards. "They're lucky," we said. "They don't appreciate it," he replied.

I'd appreciate knowing how one fits in a couple of scoops of green-tea ice cream ($2) after scarfing down all the food they parade before you at Osaka. Until they get a stomach-pump bar, I'll pass, sadly.

Osaka, 27981 Greenfield Dr., Laguna Niguel, (714) 362-2897. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $32, food only. Sake, beer and wine. Visa, MC, AmEx, Discover.
 
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