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Cooking with fire and finesse

By Keegan Prosser on April 27, 2012 – No Comment

Chef Mike Sierra adds some final touches to his grilled vegetables on his iron griddle at Tokyo Steakhouse in downtown Bellevue.

BY CELESTE GRACEY

It took Tokyo Steakhouse owner Bryan Joo seven years to break into the Bellevue market, but he did it with the patience he learned as a Korean immigrant working on a produce farm to support his family.

He now owns Bellevue’s only teppanyaki restaurant, where guests sit around iron griddles to watch chefs prepare their meals.

At one table, Chef Mike Sierra juggles a meat fork, before spinning an egg on a spatula. He builds a volcano from an onion, and its flames shoot up into the vent hood, painting his face in orange light.

His hands are always tapping, and his lips always chanting through jokes and rhythms that keep his guests engaged.

His work is both about the show and the food.

While the goal is to keep customers drawn in, for Sierra, who has been a teppanyaki chef for five years, it’s all about the food. He has to use high-quality, fresh ingredients, otherwise customers would notice. Seasoned primarily with soy and sake, the food is as simple as teriyaki.

Choose a meat, owner Joo likes shrimp and medium-rare steak ($17 for lunch, $28 for dinner), and chefs conjure up fried rice, grilled zucchini and bean sprouts. Dinners also come with a prawn appetizer and salad.

Although the fare is simple, Tokyo is far from bland. It serves Asian-styled steak sauce, they call A-1, alongside sauce for the shrimp, which they comically coined A-2.

While Tokyo’s teppanyaki grills add the most to the Bellevue restaurant scene, it also touts its sushi menu, 118 varieties.

Its grand bar, which stretches most of one wall in the 9,000 square foot space, is made entirely of Plexiglas filled with LED colored lights. LEDs light everything from the edges of the teppanyaki tables to bubbling water features scattered throughout the space.

Depending on Joo’s mood or the season, the colors change. This modern look is completed by neon-colored bar stools that surround Plexiglas tables, which are also filled with the lights.

Joo decided to make the add a Bellevue location after customers from his Federal Way restaurant continued to ask him to come to the Eastside.

He first attempted to find a spot at Lincoln Tower in 2005, but he was up against too many large chain restaurants, he said. “The market was hot.”

He waited until last year, when he struck a deal with Wallace Properties at one of the Elements towers. Tokyo is the second restaurant to open in the towers. Lunchbox Laboratory moved in next door in February.

Joo’s patience through finding the new location came from his parents, who taught him good things come to those who wait.

When he immigrated with his family at age 13, they asked him to take a job at a produce farm to help pay the bills. Until his early 20s, all of his paychecks went to his parents.

It didn’t all disappear into bills though. His parents saved enough that when he wanted his first car, they were able to outright pay for it. For him, it was the reward of his patience.

After high school he took a job as a dishwasher at a teppanyaki restaurant and worked his way up to chef. He cooked for 16 years, before opening Tokyo in Federal Way.

Now and then he still takes over the griddle for fun. “It’s in my blood.”