Rough Landing

Sushi lined up for takeoff from Osaka's massive buffet deck

It's rare that you see buffet spreads this enormous outside of places where slot bells provide the background music. But Osaka Steak & Grill's all-you-can-eat Japanese terminal is big--aircraft carrier big.

Get in there early before the dinner rush reaches its fever point, and you'll discover a din of world beat staccato taps--knives battering plastic cutting boards in a chorus of muted Gatling gun pops. Like this chorus of utensil noise, the buffet is a dizzying spread, an immense food deck festooned with brass railings and shiny sneeze guards. At one end is a plush dessert bar packed with German chocolate cake, cheesecake, apple pie, green-tea Jell-O, cream puffs and crème brûlée. The latter is perhaps the worst example of the species we've ever spied: a pasty tasteless blot with a crust lid that seemed painted on instead of singed into place. But how many aircraft carriers serve killer crème brûlée--especially since our relations with the French are so raw they'd never make an emergency pastry chef deposit onto a carrier deck? (They did recently airlift one via a U.S. Air Force transport plane to Baghdad, according to The Associated Press.)

At the other end is a hibachi platform. To the left of the distinctly Latin-looking chef are bins packed with steak carvings, chicken, bits of pork, shrimp, scallops, onions, dried garlic flecks, mushrooms and bean sprouts. I ordered the steak. The chef squirted a little oil onto the griddle from a plastic bottle, lifted a piece of the ruddy musculature (everything looks so fresh) and tossed it into a sizzle. Then he quickly made a few knife sweeps through it, transforming it into symmetrical strips.

Usually you get a show with this sort of thing; an acrobatic street juggling act with bouncing spatulas and flailing knives that look like they could harvest wheat by the acre if your throwing arm is any good. Not here. The spatula was flipped once or twice maybe six inches above the griddle, and the only excitement came when he squirted a few shots of water from another plastic bottle into my vegetable medley of onions, sprouts, mushrooms and those garlic chips and a gust of steam rose from the sizzle. In the midst of this series of catatonic gymnastic feats, the chef nodded toward a glass bowl with a piece of crisp U.S. currency folded over the rim. Carrier group personnel can be so haughty.

Despite repeated squirts from various bottles of soy and maybe ponzu interspersed between salt and pepper shakes, the flavor was as feeble as the physical display. And the meat was tough.

How would it be with the surf? Osaka has a small off-the-carrier-deck menu that includes a cheap ($21.95) surf and turf: New York strip with lobster tail. The steak had that alluring ruddy look, but it tasted flat, at least the parts I could chew without risking jaw pain. The tail was flat and fibrous, too, though it did have a tasty brown sauce brushed over it that may have been teriyaki, but our server said she thought it was oyster sauce (this was the stock answer for every sauce I prodded her about).

Between the dessert bar and the hibachi griddle are the buffet's love handles: enormous stretches of sushi on one side while the other holds cooked entrées and bins of raw foodstuffs for shabu shabu. As is the case in most sushi buffet efforts, the offerings were mostly dreadful: the rolls were flaccid, loose and mushy and the fish a little dry, losing its glisten under the buffet lights. Everything is staged in meticulous rows over white square plastic cutting boards resting in bins of ice. Little flags with the names of each substance handwritten in ink are posted at the corner of each bin. Surprisingly, it was the sashimi that worked best: clean strips of tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellow tail) and mackerel that were cool, fresh and silky. There was a tasty little innovation, too, simply called "fruit & salmon." Peach salmon flesh is set on a thin orange slice, frilled with Japanese mint and bound with nori strip (thin seaweed sheets). It was sweet, savory, breathy and sharp all at once; all in balance.

Shabu shabu, which means "swish swish" in Japanese, referring to the action when cooking very thin slices of beef in simmering water, is a buffet table installation consisting of rolled raw beef and pork sheets, chicken, oysters, scallops, a white powdered thing called squid stick, tofu, fish balls, fish cakes and assorted vegetables. To experience shabu shabu, you must inform your server so that she (and they are all shes here) can deliver a portable burner and a metal bowl of fish stock to your table while you go fetch your supplies from the carrier deck (a sign implores you to take only what you can eat). You return to the ignited burner that flames intensely enough to curl your hair before the stock bubbles, so it's best to fiddle with the burner knob to bring down the flames. Raw ingredients are immersed in the roil, and after a couple of minutes, you ladle the broth into soup bowls and seine the solid floating foodstuffs with metal strainers.

The stock is dishwater dull, and the pasty sauce delivered with the burner--similar to barbecue sauce though not as cloying--should be prodigiously applied and dissolved in order to get any punch out of it.

Beyond the shabu shabu stretch are the prepared entrées that include teriyaki beef (cold, tough and bland), black cod (thick supple flakes of firm, moist and sweet fish) and spicy crispy shrimp, whole prawns covered with seasonings and then fried (pleasantly briny but mushy).

You'd expect fried food to thrive on this buffet deck, especially the tempura. And it could easily if the oil were either at the right temperature or it were cleaned more frequently. Brittle and blond, the tempura sampler, a cluster of sweet potato slices, bell pepper rings, mushrooms and shrimp, were so oily they dripped under the slightest pinch.

Not everything fried comes off this way. Pork kastu don, coated and fried pork cutlet sliced into strips and topped with egg before it's settled over rice, was a little dry but very tasty.

Soups are substantial--sublime even. Nebeyaki udon is packed with bleached chicken nuggets (slightly dry), large shiitake mushroom hoods, coil upon coil of sticky udon noodle threads, or maybe little ropes, and a single piece of shrimp tempura that this time dripped with broth instead of oil. And that broth was clean and savory with a subversive tang, an earthy briskness.

Osaka occupies the space that was once Garden China, and very little has changed, except the dragon that once hovered above the dining room is gone and the lighted beer signs now broadcast Japanese brands. In the vestibule, display cases hold lacquered whole grilled fish, crabs, octopus and shrimp along with plates of sushi--a wax museum of bright Japanese cuisine with a heavy emphasis on visual volume.

Fitting. Buffet tables are mostly platforms of mediocrity--bang-for-buck instruments of bulk that steer clear of sensual stimulation. Osaka is every bit of the former. Yet with its eclectic merging of sushi, shabu shabu, hibachi and sweets, it's a buffet spread that should be lapped at least once, and preferably two or three times. It's hard to carry everything on one plate without getting coconut frosting on the mackerel.

5012 W. Park Blvd. at Preston, Plano. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday & Sunday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$

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Osaka Sushi

5012 W. Park Blvd.
Plano, TX 75093


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