Best Japanese/Best New Restaurant: Nakama | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Best Japanese/Best New Restaurant: Nakama

Music poured out from the porch of the Carson Street Deli, a diesel truck slowly roared by, and some excited school kids scuttled past us as my wife and I ducked into the vestibule of Nakama on the South Side. I expected our next few steps to finesse a serene transition to an interior dimmed with bamboo leaves and quieted with traditional music. Secretly, I was hoping for kimonos. Instead, we encountered cocktails with sparklers hefted high to the sounds of a bar doing very good business in front of a picture window looking out on the chaos of Carson.

We edged our way past the crowd at the bar to claim our reservations. When asked where we wanted to sit -- their bar, the sushi bar, a traditional table or at a hibachi grill -- we opted for the hibachi grill. The hibachi seating combines dinner with spectator sport, allowing for up to eight diners to sit around a grill where a chef will prepare your meal while you watch. As an added bonus, a mysterious "downdraft" system sucks all the smoke right off the grills and through a basement-level ventilation system, leaving the air (and your clothes, eyes, lungs and hair) smoke-free.

When our waiter took our orders, we requested that head hibachi chef Ron Dunn cook at our table. Soon after that, the gregarious Vincent Cortazzo, Nakama's manager and Pittsburgh's answer to Rocco DiSpirito, buzzed our table and insisted that we experience sushi chef Ernie Grey's Hawaiian roll.

I'd actually had a chance to speak with Grey's boss at Nakama, head sushi chef Sang Woo, 35, of O'Hara Township, earlier that evening. He told me that not only was Grey good, he was "a big reason why this place is where it's at." Woo himself -- who grew up in restaurants, worked for more than six years at the Fish Market, and had even prepared food for a James Beard Dinner in Manhattan -- said that his own mission at Nakama was "to take it to the next level."

When our maki arrived, however, I had to question whether "the next level" was something I would be ready for. The roll was like a little piece of heaven, sliced neatly into 10 pieces and splayed artistically over crisscrossed wasabi and soy. Shrimp tempuras stuck up like the tips of angels' wings from the ends of the roll. The rice on the outside was soft but not squishy, and the eel, avocado, crab and cucumber on the inside complemented each other flawlessly. What cinched the divinity of this seafood concerto, however, was the stripe of spicy tuna that graced the top of each perfect bite.

Next, chef Dunn, 36, of Whitehall, came to our table. We found out that Dunn, whose soft-spoken manner belied the vigor with which he was about to perform, had been honing his hibachi skills for 18 years -- half of his life. Previously, he had worked at Samurai in Green Tree, which became a Benihana -- where he became the manager. Now, as tables started to fill up around us, we got to see what those 18 years of experience looked like on a hibachi grill.

As Dunn sliced, flipped and flambéed our dinners, his knives and spice shakers beat a staccato rhythm over my tuna and my wife's chateaubriand. The occasional flames licked out over our dinners and shot up as if to counterpoint Dunn's quiet wit. If the sushi appetizer was heaven, this was a flashy, stylized, Charlie Parker-cum-Morimoto inferno. When the time came to eat, though, all the pomp and show receded: Her steak was like butter; my tuna was like lightly seared tropical fruit. We ate until we could eat no more, and it was good ... even if there weren't any kimonos.

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