RIO GRANDE - Unless you've been to the circus, you may not appreciate the art of the hibachi chef. In place of juggling balls, there are assorted knives, spatulas and forks that float through the air, while it's food that works the high-wire act in the four center rings.
The smiling ringleaders - in the guise of hibachi chefs -perform their schtick. The music is supplied by the moans of the crowds. In lieu of wild animals, the choices here are farm raised. And, just as with the circus, the more the merrier for adults and children alike.
A once-lonely stretch of Route 47 is now a bustling center of business enterprises. Businesses require eateries of all sorts, and family restaurants like Momiji Japanese Hibachi & Sushi Bar help fill the void.
Momiji was packed the night of our review. That translates into a loud scene that moves around the room as the black- or red-hatted chefs perform their magic act on the hibachi. Whole eggs spin on the grill, fly through the air and disappear into a hat or a shirt pocket, only to appear again later as part of each dish.
A series of flames, fires, smoke and steam keeps kids and adults alike with their eyes glued on the entertaining chefs. The faces of the kids reflect awe, amusement and, at times, fear as the chefs substitute squeeze bottles with strings for the kids in place of the sake-filled ones used on the adults.
Either way, they each get a jolt. Children have a special menu at the hibachi table, but the best part is when the chef goes around the table flinging chunks of chicken into the air and allows the customers to catch their meal with their mouths. Playing with your food has never been so much fun.
Although you may spot couples from time to time, the bulk of the customers are families of varying numbers. While teens mostly survive by grinning and bearing, it is the faces of the younger kids that make the whole experience worthwhile - watching them experience the show seated around the hibachi grills. Better still is to sit at a table away from the four hibachi set-ups in order to follow the action as it goes around the room. There is something for every age during this greatest show on earth.
Tuna tataki ($9.95) is a rectangular cut of tuna, rolled in sesame seeds then pan seared and served over a crunchy seaweed-and-cucumber salad. We used our best chopstick etiquette to apply equal parts of tuna, seaweed and sauce to our palates in one attempt.
Shumai ($4.75) are the steamed seafood dumplings, appearing as tiny, disk-shaped pasta filled with a mild, unnamed seafood mixture, a soy dipping sauce and a hand-carved carrot blossom for good measure. Some entrees come complete with an iceberg, tomato and cucumber salad covered with a carrot-ginger puree and a bowl of miso soup with seaweed and tofu dice.
Shrimp tempura ($13.95) was long pieces of tail-on shrimp, batter dipped and rolled in panko-style crumbs then deep fried to crisp. We don't know how the shrimp were made to appear so long, but we couldn't argue with the technique. The crisp shrimp paired well with another soy dipping sauce.
Sushi can be ordered as single rolls or in assorted combinations for one, two or more diners. We sampled the Cape May roll ($6.50) with shrimp, crabmeat, cucumber, avocado and asparagus; the crunchy spicy-tuna roll ($6.25), which is spicy tuna with tempura flakes; and the sweet-potato roll ($4.50). All were served with Japanese green wasabi and gari - pink pickled ginger - for clearing the palate between tastes. We also sampled two scoops ($2.75) of green-tea ice cream that had the texture of Play-Doh without all the flavor.
The abandoned takeout window revealed the building as a fast-food chain in a previous life. Inside, wood had been used to transform the dining room. The behemoth stainless-steel venting systems that are a necessary evil over the hibachi grills have been cleverly disguised by wood trim all around.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
& Sushi Bar
1302 Route 47 south
Hours: Dinners Monday to Thursday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $4.25 to $9.95, entrees, $10.95 to $35.95
Our bill for two: $52 plus tip