Ikko II Japanese Steakhouse in Portsmouth was a bit more intimate, but the flames and knives flew just as high.
“Dinner and a show,” my dining companion said as the red-hatted chef prepared the cooking surface.
There were three parties of two at the table, and we nodded politely at each other and the chef, who grinned at us.
He started with some knife-play, then tossed an egg into the air, allowing it to land on the grill next to the fried rice. Soon the veggies joined the party. Last to come was the steak, scallops and shrimp. Each diner was asked their steak preference — rare for me, medium-rare for everyone else.
In the meantime, our server (who seemed to be everywhere at once) brought us drinks and small salads, as well as soup. We also ordered harumaki, fried spring rolls with plum sauce.
“Delightfully crispy, almost airy, with a nicely cooked interior,” my dining partner said.
The chill outside made me go for something more hearty, so my appetizer choice was gyoza, six pan-fried pork dumplings. The exterior was crisp and light, the inside tender and meaty.
I’d visited the restaurant a few days before to scope it out and pick up some California rolls for a book group gathering. The rolls were delightfully fresh, far better than supermarket sushi and slightly less expensive.
This prompted some research on the California roll, the classic combo of rice, cucumber, avocado and (usually artificial) crab, which several West Coast chefs claimed credit for in the 1970s.
Japan has recognized Vancouver chef Hidekazu Tojo as a goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine, and he describes himself as the inventor of the California roll and innovator of “inside-out” sushi, putting the rice on the outside of the roll instead of seaweed wrap.
The Ikko II opened four years ago, and like the original Ikko on Central Street in Dover, is owned by young chef Jason Huang. Last summer he launched Chef Huang’s Asian Fusion, which an Our Gourmet team reviewed in July. Like Ikko II, it is in Portsmouth and just off Route 1.
The Ikko II also offers Asian fusion dishes, as well as tempura, teriyaki, sushi, sashimi, noodles (udon) and fried rice. More than half of the restaurant’s ample space is dedicated to traditional booth, table and bar seating, the rest to hibachi tables.
Hibachi in Japanese means “fire bowl” and the cooking does not take long.
The steak was flavorful and tender, the scallops smoky and luscious. I would have asked the couple on the other side of the table about the shrimp, but they were a bit far away for polite conversation.
My dining partner dug into the steak and scallops while he waited for his shrimp tempura.
There was plenty to share, and we agreed the grilled zucchini, carrots, broccoli, onions and mushrooms were the perfect counterpoint to the beef and seafood. I had elected to have fried noodles, and the slightly sweet sauce with notes of soy was yummy.
It was then that a tower of tempura arrived for my companion, with four batter-dipped and deep-fried shrimp perched triumphantly atop a pile of similarly prepared vegetables.
My first taste of authentic tempura was 15 years ago at Tokyo’s main train station. It was a chrysanthemum. The essence of the flower burst through, the delicate flavor somehow strengthened by the hot oil bath and light batter.
There weren’t any flowers in this dish, but the sweet potatoes, broccoli, mushroom and string bean held up their end of the deal. There was one vegetable we couldn’t identify — possibly potato — and it was the only loser in the bunch.
Tempura is served with tentsuyu sauce, which is made with dashi (Japanese soup stock), soy sauce, sweet rice wine and a dash of sugar. Somehow we managed to dip our way through the entire bowl.
My dining companion had only one complaint — he wanted more heat in his food. He plans to ask for Japanese chili oil with his meal the next time we come.