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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist
There are restaurant legends in Bakersfield who have had such an impact on the cuisine that their influence lasts years, if not decades.
One such man is Tom Shimura.
5498 California Ave.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. every day. Reservations recommended.
Prices: Teppan lunch, $9.95 to $49.95; Teppan dinner, $15.95 to $59.95; child's teppan menu, $9.95 to $10.95; $6 sharing charge at the teppan grill.
Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.
Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full bar service; some vegetarian options.
For decades he owned and operated a small Japanese restaurant called Shimura at the corner of Ming and New Stine. Over the years we've run into several people who trained with him, many of whom are still out there working today, including a teppan grill chef named Vincent at Shogun Palace on California Avenue.
Vincent has worked around town, at an assortment of different restaurants. But his respect for Shimura, who he said is 77 and still active around town, is clearly evident.
"He taught me everything I know 14 years ago, gave me my start," Vincent said with a smile as he cooked for us -- and entertained us -- while we dined at Shogun recently.
What got us in the door to begin with are the constant crowds we've seen around the four teppan grills at Shogun. Though we've had such great teppan experiences at Tokyo Garden on Ming Avenue, we had to see what was filling the four very large (18 seats!) grills, especially on the weekends. It's all visible through the floor- to-ceiling windows, which may help create the mystique. Kind of like the curiosity you would have about a noisy party going on next door. "Why am I NOT there?"
We went on a weekday night when it was easier to get a seat, but even then two grills were nearly packed. My companion chose the "land and sea" (filet mignon and shrimp, $29.95) while I selected the "premium" (rib-eye steak and chicken, $28.95). Had we been flush with cash, we could have selected the "ultimate" (lobster, filet mignon, shrimp and scallops, $59.95).
I had always heard from readers that the food may be a bit better at Tokyo Garden but the shtick from the chefs at Shogun is more entertaining. If Vincent is typical of the folks working there, I can see why. Not only was he cheerful, he was funny and appeared to genuinely enjoy his job at every minute. He talks to you as if determined to be your new best friend by the end of the experience. He keeps the patter going, the juggling knife tricks, cutting an egg shell with a knife and leaving it sheathed in the shell somehow for a moment (how did that hold it up?). He even mastered the art of flinging his sesame-seed shaker into the corner of the ventilation hood above him and having it stay up there. He's a wizard, I tell ya.
The opening courses of the fried rice and grilled chopped vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, white onions and carrots) were helped by a liberal amount of soy sauce and butter, but he did ask us what level of seasoning we desired (with the sodium soy sauce provides, it's a wise and considerate move). The husband, wife and children to our left were celebrating the mom's 25th birthday, so he mounded the rice into a heart and animated it to a thumping organ with his spatula, then pulled out a candle, lit it and got everyone to sing "Happy Birthday."
All the entree proteins were expertly cooked, especially the grilled shrimp, which were crispy. The filet mignon was tender but, unsurprisingly, not as flavorful as the rib-eye. The other patrons were smart enough to save rice and veggies to eat with the meat, but I lacked the self-control to do that, so I was unable to create a kind of impromptu bowl experience.
It was fun to watch the shenanigans at another table, where the chef was flipping bits of shrimp into the mouths of customers as if they were seals. Most of them caught them. Vince did flip the full bowls of rice into our laps if we wanted to catch them, and all who chose that handled it without fumbling the grains all over the floor.
They also serve teppan grill fare at lunch, so check it out. It's as fun as food gets.