A recent piece in the New York Times celebrated what it calls "the new dinner theater," a resurgence of the kind of old-school dining where tableside service flamboyantly takes on a Cirque du Soleil edge. Portland has its places where these kinds of pyrotechnics are celebrated--the flaming kabobs at El Gaucho, the achingly pampered Caesar prepared tableside at Wilf's, the chop chop of Benihana--and to a certain degree it's a city capable of embracing such servitude with the kind of humility required. Still, it's my guess that Portlanders like to give more than to receive, and that's why the recently opened Japanese grill Ginya--where you cook your own food at your table--is so attractive.
The set-up at Ginya will be familiar to those of you who have spent some time at those Korean restaurants that somehow squeeze through a health inspection to offer a charcoal grill right on the table, and you eat what you cook while it's still glistening from its lashing over the fire. This kind of cooking has a history in many cultures, including Japan. In true Japanese style, Ginya offers a version of these grills that are all tech and no mess; they are sunk into the table, and ducts invisible to the eye silently suck away any offending smoke or odor. This isn't your daddy's hibachi.
The menu consists mostly of Japanese fare with a special altar set up to pay homage to this country's obsession with decadently marbled--and hard to find in Portland--Kobe beef. Kobe cattle, according to legend, are treated better than most royalty: Their bodies are massaged with sake and their tummies are fed beer. The menu also displays Korean delights, and Ginya's kimchee offerings, such as squares of fermented white radish nimbly doused in hot sauce ($3.50), are as good as you'll find in this city. But beef is where it's at. In this era of mad cow and e. coli panic, it's a brave and committed restaurant that offers uncooked meat such as rib-eye carpaccio ($11.50) and beef sashimi ($7.75).
While raw may seem adventurous, most people will want to jump immediately into the fire. You order what you want à la carte, and it's best to mix it up. While it may seem outrageous to spend $12.50 on a handful of blade-thin Kobe rib-eye slices, once you share them among three friends, along with more reasonable items such as short ribs ($6.75), sausage ($4.25) and shrimp ($5.25), it's easy to come away with a filling dinner for $20--including appy, dessert and tip. Is the Kobe worth all the fuss? It's hard to say whether it was the joy of cooking my beef just the way I like it and eating it seconds after it left the flame or the sheer quality of the meat that made it all so flavorful. So, the answer is--yes! Veggies don't fair as well as meat in this environment; potatoes don't seem to ever cook enough and mushrooms shrivel under the dry heat.
If you've got the time and a willing partner, the pomp that's called shabu-shabu is a fun activity. For $19 per person, the grill is fitted with a pot of water and seaweed. Soon, an overflowing platter of thin strips of beef, napa cabbage, onion, mushroom, tofu, udon and wakame is placed on the table, along with bowls of ponzu and sesame sauce. Once the water starts to boil, the server takes out the strip of seaweed and urges us to dunk and cook in hot-pot format. Our server, like most of those at Ginya, is a recent immigrant from Japan, and she assures us that this is a common meal from her homeland and that it's usually the father's job to tend the pot. The name, she told us, corresponds to the action of pushing the food around in the water. My friend and I giggle excessively as we shout "shabu-shabu" while poking our errant pieces of cabbage with chopsticks. After the food is gone, the server brings a bowl with strips of dried seaweed, green onion, rice and egg and ceremoniously drops it into the water in the pot, which, after all the shabu-shabuing, has formed a broth. In a few minutes it becomes a porridge-like dish called zosui that might push you over the line from full to stuffed but is the perfect tummy warmer for Portland's rainy nights.
The service at Ginya is charming and attentive; my only complaint is that there is a random reservation policy. I was told on the phone that parties of two couldn't make a reservation on weekend nights, but that if I came after 8 pm there wouldn't be a problem. When I got there at 8:15, I had a half-hour wait in front of me. And at one point there seemed to be a minor mutiny occurring in the lobby.
It's easy to overlook a place like Ginya as a mere stop on the gimmick highway, but the reality is that there's a benefit to this style of self-cooking beyond the amusement factor. Forgoing the cool-down stops of kitchen-to-table makes for fresh food. Sure, it's got something in common with cooking at home--the control (or lack thereof). But you miss all the prep work and cleanup. Plus, here you get the added benefit of trying some Japanese home cooking with a little professional schooling thrown in.
4615-A SE Hawthorne Blvd. 231- 8364. 511 pm Tuesday- Sunday. Moderate- expensive $$-$$$.
picks: kimchee, Kobe beef, shabu-shabu.
nice touch: friendly waitstaff from Japan.