Something To Chew On 

The potential and problems of the Iron Chef.

Fandom sent me to Myung Sook Lee's Iron Chef restaurant, named for the popular Food Network show on which Lee was a competitor. What I found of the Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian restaurant was unexpected -- sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not.

Located on Summer Avenue, the Iron Chef is in a large metal building resembling a warehouse. A small bar area and large dining room are divided by a low wall. The kitchen sits at the back of the dining room and is enclosed in glass panels, allowing diners to observe the preparation of their meals. A wall-mounted television plays an Iron Chef video continuously. The setting is a little austere but casual with its metal chairs and tables. It's good for large gatherings but not for an intimate dining experience. We had made reservations, but they were not necessary since the restaurant had few patrons on this Friday night.

We began with a complimentary, tasty salsa-like mixture of green onions, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and cilantro blended with rice-wine vinegar and served with lightly fried wonton chips. Next, we sampled the shrimp tempura. Although served with a flavorful sweet-and-sour sauce and prepared in a light tempura batter, the breading on the shrimp did not cook thoroughly nor did the shrimp reach an even doneness. For every crunchy shrimp with a translucent pink center there was another that was soggy and undercooked.

The chicken katsu was delicious -- moist strips of chicken breast dredged through a dried flaky breading, fried golden brown, and drizzled with teriyaki honey sauce. Not to be outdone were the gyoza dumplings stuffed with lean beef and chopped green onion, boiled then pan-seared to a light brown and crunchy finish. Accompanied by a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice-wine vinegar, these dumplings were a hit. To round out our appetizer choices, we selected the California roll -- a spring roll wrapper stuffed with imitation crabmeat (fresh and authentic would have been better), cucumber, and avocado and rolled in a sushi rice blend (rice-wine vinegar, sugar, and rice). The roll wore small golden eggs of whitefish caviar like crown jewels and was served with traditional wasabi and fresh gingerroot -- a visual and tasty treat indeed.

Our first entrée, the lobster, had been separated into pieces, sautéed in garlic, and presented on a large platter with green onions and broccoli. The vegetables mingled in a sweet and spicy sauce alongside a mound of long-grain white rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The menu indicated bread and salad would accompany the meal. We never received the bread and missed the chance to sop up the dish's flavor-packed sauce.

The beef pepper steak we ordered was supposed to be served with sautéed mushrooms. We never saw any mushrooms, but we did get two pan-seared steaks atop a mixture of tomatoes, broccoli, and onions. I expected the steak to be sliced into thin strips; instead, it came prepared as two whole (and tough) steaks, well-done rather than medium as we had ordered.

Our party also tried the Thai sautéed shrimp -- shrimp, onions, green onion, red pepper, and a hint of cilantro mingling in a spicy sauce enhanced with a hint of red chili pepper and encircling a mound of white rice topped with black sesame seeds. The plump, tender, and succulent shrimp enhanced the sauce without being overpowered by it.

Our final entrée, the Kashiyaki platter, was a selection of skewered grilled chicken, beef, shrimp, and onions with rice. The dish tasted as expected but lacked creativity. The menu offered bread or rice with each entrée, but we were never asked our preference and received four large mounds of rice instead. The menu also indicated that green salads would accompany each entrée but they did not. This is sheer lack of attention to detail. Plus, our server struggled to communicate with us and needed assistance on several occasions to answer questions. Further, we had to request that another waitress send ours back to our table for additional beverages. Not a good scene.

The ending to the evening came when we learned that the four desserts listed on the menu were not available. While we were disappointed not to try green-tea ice cream or red-bean ice cream, the manager persuaded us to try the two special desserts offered, the banana flambé over a chocolate cheesecake and a banana tempura. I wondered where bananas were on special. Of the flambé, I found the caramelized sauce too pungent for the delicate chocolate cheesecake, though other members of our party found the flavors quite tasty. For the tempura, bananas had been cut in half and dipped in a batter, lightly fried, sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, and served in the same sauce as the flambé.

Although many items displayed creativity and intense flavor, overall I found the Iron Chef to be disappointing. The restaurant has potential but needs to critique itself and focus on the details of timing, service, and menu advertising. I hope my experience did not wholly explain why the restaurant was almost empty on a Friday night. The Iron Chef has been open for a while, and I am hopeful it can iron out the wrinkles.

The Iron Chef is located at 5529 Summer Avenue, 372-1313. Patrons may dine in or carry out, and delivery is available. The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Saturday, 510 p.m. Appetizer prices range from $1.95 to $11.95 and entrées from $11.95 to $25. Wine and beer are available.

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