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October 09, 2007

Champion House: For a Fratastic Family Outing

By Adam Dubinsky, ’07

If you associate family establishments and acrobatic juggling with popped collars and sake bombs, read no further. You already know what I have to say. This review is of no use to you -- you are a frat boy, you are drunk, and you have accidentally stumbled over into the Law School. Put the newspaper down, turn around, cross the street, and go back to Beta, your beach volleyball game, and your gutted, sticky-floored dens of misogyny.

If you do not yet make this association, but would like to experience the seamless and shameless unification of children screaming and frat boys pounding tables, then have your next dinner at Champion House, located at 120 E. Liberty. You might find that you have a passion for participating in the bizarre sociological pastiche, though Champion House is such a caricature of an imitation of a simulacrum of an already mythical notion of authenticity that, by the time you leave, you risk losing any grasp of reality. (Eat your heart out, Phillip K. Dick.) No, really—the sodium content of the food is enough to make me worry about hypertension, and my blood pressure is only around 90/46 (measured during Trusts & Estates).

It is true that high sodium content, grotesque stereotypes, and awkward juxtapositions are part of the perverse charm of teppanyaki Japanese steakhouses. The average trip to Benihana will sit you next to four obnoxious strangers, whose loud “private” divulgences are not particularly appetizing, and feature a Chinese chef putting on a fake “Asian” accent while pretending to be Japanese, making onion-ring volcanoes, and sending twirling cascades of salt over everything. Don’t get me wrong—I love teppanyaki. My favorite restaurant in Worcester, MA is the irredeemably mediocre Sakura Tokyo, where they never give you enough mustard sauce (“for steak, chicken, and everything”) but overload you with ginger sauce (“for seafood, vegetable, and everything”). I can’t get enough of the food and the flames. I eat and eat and, a half hour after I’m done, I am hungry again. Even the authenticity of my hunger’s satisfaction is illusive.

But, if teppanyaki is the culinary equivalent of the mind-fuck film genre, Champion House is the Blade Runner of teppanyaki, especially if you include Harrison Ford’s ridiculous voice-over from the production cut. The ridiculous voice-over in my head began as soon as my lovely companion and I encountered the maitre d’. After we asked to be seated at a teppanyaki table, he eyed us, leafed through his reservations, eyed us again, flipped another page, eyed us, looked at the page, eyed us again, paused, eyed us once more, and finally gestured for us to follow him. He led us to the end of an empty table for eight, across from a table occupied by a family of five.

While we debated what to order, my ears picked up the thud of approaching footfalls and the irreverent banter of the sort of group that actually seems to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of tube tops and ruffle skirts. Peeking from behind the menu, I saw four large, good-looking gentlemen in polo shirts approach our table. The waiter recognized them immediately: “let me guess—you all want the scallops? The sake bombs will be right over.” Indeed, the boys wanted the scallops and the sake bombs came quickly. The little girls from the family across from us watched in amazement while the boys filled their glasses with beer and perched their sake cups precariously above it with their chopsticks. The fists came down like so many hammers of Thor; the sake fell. The boys chugged. I wiped a few drops of splattered beer from my forehead. The boys slammed their glasses down and cheered.

Meanwhile, at the other table, the youngest daughter began screaming. The middle child, one noodle-draped chopstick in each fist, lowered far too much pasta into her mouth from above her head. The oldest daughter, around thirteen, shrank with embarrassment into her chair. Meanwhile, their Caucasian chef pushed around a flaming onion-ring volcano. My companion tapped my shoulder to show me the cart carrying the ingredients their chef would prepare. The raw beef had spilled over the side of its container and collected in the corner of the cart. One piece had fallen onto the floor. That’s when we decided to change our filet order from medium rare to medium well.

My attention returned to our table with another round of slamming fists and drizzling beer. Our chef had arrived, and my companion sighed with relief—he was Asian. I wasn’t prepared to relax yet. During his performance, he dropped his knife three times and burned his hand on the stove trying to catch a low-falling spatula. He nearly singed my eyebrows off when he lit the oil on fire, another first in my vast teppanyaki experience. More fist slams. A drop of beer slid down my nose and fell onto my zucchini.

Honestly, most of the food wasn’t awful. The vegetables were more or less the same as at any teppanyaki table—over-salted and over-sauced onion and zucchini that I just can’t get enough of. The filet was a bit chewy at medium well, but still tasty. The lobster tail was delicious, though perhaps it is difficult to ruin lobster. The mustard sauce, however, was too thin. And the calamari steaks were actually awful. They lacked flavor and had the texture of a tempurpedic mattress. All in all, even ignoring the omission to offer a complimentary scoop of coconut ice cream with each meal, Champion House is by far the worst teppanyaki I have ever had. But it’s not any cheaper.

The family across from us had been replaced by a group of four boys in polo shirts. They were setting up their sake bombs. When my companion and I stood up, I looked across the restaurant. There were four frat boys at every other table. At some, the fists were coming down. At others, the cups we being set up. At the third set, the boys had abandoned the chopsticks altogether and just dropped their cups into the beer. In between them all were nuclear families with young children in various states of tantrums.

So, if you like sake bombs and absurdity, Champion House may very well your ultimate dining experience. If not, it still might be better than a trip to the circus. You should have heard what our frat boys were talking about. My companion and I pretended to be mesmerized by the fried rice to disguise our eavesdropping. Sociological studies aside, though, Champion House is a loser.