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Here's a novel idea that's taken decades to finally be realized: hibachi in the Heights.
For about as long as anyone can remember, the only places serving Japanese hibachi-style cooking — where your family and a few more folks you don't know all gather around a 575 F.-degree scorcher of a grill with just enough safe distance between your hands and the searing metal, while a bandana-wearing chef puts on a cooking and balancing act to wow kids of all ages — were either in the Riverdale area on Cantrell Road, or out in West Little Rock or across the river. We remember waiting an hour or more back in the good ol' hibachi days at the famed Shogun just to be seated on a weekend night.
We never imagined someone might actually open such a place in the Heights, not in the neighborhood of intimate fancy cuisine.
But we didn't foresee Sushi Cafe coming and taking the Heights by storm, either.
Young entrepreneurs Robert Tju, who opened Sushi Cafe, and Jacob Chi of the well-known Chi family of restaurants and hotels in this market — even tried opening a Asian haute cuisine restaurant on Kavanaugh Boulevard a couple of years ago that they called RJ Tao. Everyone would probably admit it was an overreach.
RJ Tao has morphed into Oishi, which we're told translates from Japanese to English as "delicious," but Oishi is not simply a scaled-down version of the previous restaurant. Rather, it's a complete reworking of the menu to more affordable, tasty Thai dishes, a sushi bar, an open-air patio where diners can order Asian-influenced tapas, an inviting drink bar inside the main entrance, and the aforementioned hibachi tables: four in fact, plus another hibachi station to serve up an assortment of meat and seafood and deliver to the nearby regular dining tables, if one doesn't want the community feel around the hot hibachi grill with fire and smoking onion volcano.
Oishi still has most of the ornamentation of RJ Tao still in place — a giant Buddha statue sits in a dining room that also includes three hideaway dining tables and even smaller Buddhas that line the entranceway. It has only been open a few weeks, and we're not sure many folks know hibachi is available. On a recent weeknight, we dined alone at one hibachi table, a family of four wrapped up dinner at another, and two hibachi grills sat idle.
Dining alone at a hibachi grill has its plusses — mainly the full attention of the chef, and ours was determined to make the meal an experience.
Among a variety of steak choices cooked on the hibachi, including Arkansas-raised rib-eye and American Kobe, we chose the Oishi special ($30), which was a small filet cut accompanied by saltwater lobster. There are more than a dozen combos in which you can pair steak and other seafood (shrimp, scallops, salmon) or just go all out on seafood or steak alone. Lunchtime hibachi offers cheaper prices, but even the dinner-time prices were good.
Our California-native chef, who told us he'd worked the hibachi circuit in 41 states, was a rock star with all the entertaining tricks, but he also came up with a wasabi-based concoction that bettered by a mile the ubiquitous ginger, yum-yum and teriyaki sauces traditionally laid out for the hibachi diner. He also refused to let me leave with just a tiny offering of lobster for the $30, insisting the kitchen send another tail for grilling.
The filet needed no additional "dipping" sauces and was delightfully tender and well-seasoned. The fried rice and vegetables were just as they should be, full of flavor. The spicy wasabi sauce complemented the lobster nicely. A large can of Sapporo beer poured into a chilled glass completed a fantastic meal, even if there was no one but the chef and nearby TVs displaying sports or "Big Bang Theory" to provide company.
On another dinner visit to Oishi, two of us went the Thai route — as much as we've desired having hibachi available near Midtown, we've also had a hankering for good Thai. Only so many trips to Pei Wei will do for us. We want a kitchen that steps out.
Oishi does just that with such dishes as the Panang Curry ($15), the best we've had in Little Rock, with the right amount of coconut milk offsetting the powerful hot kick in the curry. We also took note of this version with shrimp (several LARGE crustaceans, in fact) being about $6 cheaper than a version we'd had from another new Asian-influenced spot. It also came with exactly the right amount of rice to balance all the other flavors and absorb some of the liquid.
The Pad Thai was tempting to order, but our helpful waitress convinced us that many diners had been raving about the Pad See Euw ($13). We see why. While not as hot as the curry, the sauce brought a nice amount of sweet chili pepper heat to perfectly cooked, wide rice noodles, tender chicken and scrambled egg. It was a fabulous dish.
As for our starter, there was more than enough of one refreshing, crisp, spicy green papaya salad for two to share.
There are plenty of other appetizers, soups, desserts and sides, too many to list here, plus intriguing entrees such as lamb chops and pineapple fried rice. Nothing struck us as priced exorbitantly. Also, we ran into some diners who had tried RJ Tao and noted how much more relaxed and louder and fun Oishi seemed to be.
The Chi family has been a dependable purveyor of Asian-styled food in this market for many years. Occasionally, the Chis may have overestimated the market for some daring endeavors, but they always fall back to something that's terrifically tasty while easy on the pocket book. While the exotic kangaroo, cheese fondue, bacon-wrapped Sabel fish, bison osso bucco and the like at RJ Tao were items not found anywhere else around here, the repurposing of the restaurant as Oishi, with good Thai and hibachi, is more suited to local palates sure to make regular visits. And yes, they have Chi's famed crab Rangoon on the appetizer list as well as other longtime favorites.