Teppanyaki chef Mason Ma’s role at the new Kobe Seafood and Steak House on North Reserve Street in Missoula is part showmanship and part craftsmanship.
His first job is to dazzle his customers by cooking their meal in front of them on a large metal griddle.
He starts off with tricks like cracking open an egg with the blade side of a spatula in midair and using fiery oil inside onion slices to create a miniature volcano.
Kids love it, obviously, and he makes small talk with the people gathered at his table, cracking jokes while he catapults pieces of broccoli at their mouths. But he still has a meal to prepare – his second job - and that requires vigilance.
That’s why it takes at least two years for teppanyaki chefs to be able to work their magic in front of paying customers, so they are skilled enough to prevent an errant spatula or flaming spray of oil from hitting anyone in the eye.
Vicki Keller, who owns the restaurant with her daughter and son, also owns restaurants in California, Dallas, Oregon and Great Falls. She says they were drawn to Missoula because there isn’t a place that combines all of the elements they do: teppanyaki-style cooking, steak, chicken, seafood and sushi dishes.
“We found that Montana is a really nice place to open a restaurant and we’re doing really well in Great Falls,” Keller said.
The restaurant is modest looking on the outside, but crews have spent the last seven months remodeling the spacious interior. The place seats 220, including nearly a dozen large teppanyaki grill tables and a wraparound bar along with a sushi bar. Head sushi chef Joe Tan grew up in Malaysia but spent seven years in Tokyo learning how to create sushi from the best of the best. On Thursday, he deftly sliced up thin pieces of avocado and fresh ahi tuna and other fish for a rainbow roll in less than 120 seconds, his knife dancing like he had rehearsed the movements thousands of times before.
“They never use avocado in Japanese sushi,” he explained. “That’s an American thing. They never let me work in front of customers in Japan because I wasn’t Japanese, but I got a job at a place that served American customers and I showed them how to do American-style sushi.”
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The sushi menu includes specialty rolls, many types of seafood - from freshwater eel to super white tuna - as well as sampler platters and green mussels.
The teppanyaki lunch menu was designed to be very affordable, Keller said, with dishes ranging from $7.95 for chicken to $14.95 for filet mignon and scallops. Everything comes with onion soup, steamed rice and assorted vegetables.
The dinner menu includes everything from lobster tail to Kobe steak to shrimp to salmon to pork pad thai to salads.
“We use only high-quality, fresh ingredients, and none of our steak is frozen,” said manager Joe Ping, Keller’s cousin.
There were several customers on Thursday who indulged in “sake bombs,” which involves placing a shot of the Japanese rice wine onto two chopsticks placed over a glass of beer, then pounding the table to cause the shot to fall in and chugging the contents.
“We feel that sake is an under-appreciated beverage,” Keller’s daughter Christie Chiang said. “When people think of sake, they think of a piping hot alcoholic beverage that doesn’t have much flavor except the burn. Sake can be just as complex as wine. It is brewed like a beer, but the alcohol content and complexity is more akin to wine. We want to share our enjoyment of sake with our customers. Most sakes on our list are served cold, which preserves the integrity of the beverage. We offer many sakes by the glass, so people can try the different types from Tomodachi to Nigori to Junmai Ginjo, and find one that suits their palate. We also offer sake that’s gluten-free. One of my personal favorites, Tyku Black, is gluten-free, along with many others.”
The restaurant at 331 N. Reserve is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m until 9:30 p.m., Friday through Saturday 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. The teppanyaki lunch menu is available Monday through Friday until 2:30 p.m.
Their website is kobemissoula.com and the phone number is 540-4480.