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Hibachi comes to Vail

Caramie Schnell
cschnell@vaildaily.com
VAIL CO, Colorado
HL Sushi Oka 3 KA 6-1-11
ALL |

VAIL –Two-foot orange flames drew one of only two other diners in Sushi Oka out of her chair and across the room to the hibachi table. She watched as Agung Kurniawan, nickname Kit, worked his vodka-and-oil-fueled magic on the grill. It was late afternoon on a recent Wednesday. Kit, one of two hibachi chefs at the Vail eatery, carefully piled onion rings atop one another into a small hourglass shape and then squirted the clear fluid inside before igniting the fiery spectacle with a pink Bic lighter.

After a three-month hiatus, the restaurant recently reopened in its new location above the Secret Garden on E. Meadow Drive in Vail in mid-May.

The location was under construction for nearly eight months, as owner Rick Woo remodeled the space. Sushi Oka is the only hibachi restaurant from this side of Vail Pass all the way to Grand Junction, Woo said. The restaurant seats 130 people and can accomodate 60 diners at 10 grill-side hibachi tables. The parts for the tables were imported from Japan and assembled in New York City before being shipped here, Woo said.

“Finally, this is our longtime idea come true,” he said. “We planned to have this two years ago, and finally, we got it done.”

The restaurant opened May 19, and so far, diners have left with full bellies and big smiles, Woo said.

“I always ask, ‘How was your dinner?’ And people say, ‘De-li-cious,'” Woo said, accentuating each syllable.

While the restaurant’s sushi menu is mostly unchanged, there’s an extensive hibachi menu, with everything from wild salmon and Chilean sea bass to filet mignon and ribeye.

After deciding on the steak and shrimp hibachi lunch ($20 at lunch and $39 at dinner, served with soup, salad, vegetables and rice), a smiling Kit pushed over a cart filled with containers of chopped vegetables, steak, shrimp, rice, eggs and dozens of bottles of sauces and spices.

Kit, who is Indonesian, most recently worked at the Las Vegas Benihana, the iconic Japanese steakhouse chain that made exhibition-style dining mainstream. With his showman skills on full display, he started the meal by throwing two eggs up in the air a few times, catching and spinning them on his metal spatula.

“I like to move it, move it,” he sang, as the eggs came down squarely on the spatula’s edge and cracked neatly in half, the grill sizzling as the eggs hit.

He added steamed rice, onions and sesame seeds to the grill, along with splashes of spices and sauces. He formed the ingredients into the words “i (heart) u” and then deftly scooped the steaming fried rice into bowls and served them to us before adding a mound of fresh vegetables, a piece of steak and a handful of pink shrimp to the grill.

In between spinning knives and spatulas and throwing spice shakers and bottles into the air, Kit chatted and joked with us. Part of the fun of going to a hibachi restaurant is the theatrical nature of the meal, and Woo has made sure to employ chefs who can cook up a tasty dinner, as well as entertain diners.

While Kit worked the grill, Sushi Chef Long delivered three of his colorful sushi rolls –the Vail roll, the rainbow roll and a fried eel roll. The Vail roll, filled with shrimp tempura, crab and cucumber and topped with spicy tuna and avocado, is Woo’s creation. Topped with tasty sweet chile sauce and eel sauce, the roll is one of the most popular rolls on the menu, he said. The eel roll, rife with fried eel and cucumber and topped with avocado and a hefty sprinkling of crispy tempura flakes, makes for a nice contrast in texture.

For the younger-than-10 crowd, the restaurant has a mini hibachi menu; the options include chicken, shrimp, salmon or steak and come with a smaller portion of protein, as well as soup, salad and rice. Starting on Friday, the restaurant will offer Chinese and Thai specialties such as General Tsao’s chicken, Szechuan beef and Thai coconut curry. Woo also owns May Palace in West Vail, and he’s had lots of requests from people to add those items to the menu, he said.

“We picked up the popular dishes from the May Palace menu and brought them over here to take care of the people who don’t want to drive to May Palace and want the convenience of it,” Woo said.

Like most Asian restaurants, Sushi Oka’s menu is extensive. Along with the hibachi items, sushi and wok offerings, there’s a tempura section and noodle and rice bowls, such as shrimp udon stir fry. A section of the dinner menu called “From the Steamer” includes items such as country-style seabass with steamed seabass and tofu with black mushrooms. At lunch, the restaurant has bento-style boxes ($10 to $16) served with soup, salad, California roll and steamed rice. So even if you’re not looking for fire, you’ll find something to fill your belly.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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