Gyu Kaku, a Japanese restaurant chain (newly opened at posh Victoria Gardens), has the makings of a great night spot for twentysomething singles: pretty little hostesses and waitresses clustered around hot, well-apportioned bartenders, faux Japanese décor, and loft ceilings outfitted by black metal piping, with white paper lanterns peppering the aisles. Everything is a collected melting pot of white, black and brown. Creeping into the booth, my dining partner and I felt like we’d aged a lifetime before the bartender realized we might require refreshment (after I had brought out my pen and notebook and started furiously scribbling). Only then, at the same snail’s pace that it took for me to find a parking spot, did I get my ice water. And a full 10 minutes later, Ivan arrived, eager to erase the Zen-like detachment that originally befell us.
Our 20-minute service lapse afforded us sufficient opportunity to peruse the menu. I knew dinner would be anything but cheap. The lowest-priced combo meal weighed in at a hefty $22 per person for raw meats and vegetables I’d have to grill myself. The daily happy hour specials (a meager six appetizers at half price) wouldn’t sate our appetites either. Unless we dined in a large, inebriated mass–like the nice guys behind the partition who shouted in unison to Madonna’s background wailing–a la carte seemed the best way to sample the various cuts. We settled on a plate of assorted veggies, a half order (4.5 ounces) each of the Harami Skirt Steak, shabu shabu beef, chicken basil, spicy Chilean sea bass and a couple bowls of steamed rice.
The vegetables arrived first, followed by formal schooling by Ivan–two to three minutes per side of each of our slices. Of course, being Asian meant I shouldn’t need the lesson, but I humored Ivan, and I suppose it was his opportunity to make right by seizing the "horn of the bull," Gyu Kaku’s literal translation of service first. When our meats arrived, we received the same gentle culinary guidance–cook a few pieces at a time for five minutes on each side, and eat hot off the grill, being careful not to burn our tongues. Before Ivan was halfway through his monologue, I had plucked a couple strings of shabu beef from its bowl impatiently and slathered it across the grill.
The shabu beef was difficult to cook, owing to the thin and stringy cut–a major disappointment. It’s not like regular shabu beef, even with the citrus ponzu dipping sauce the crew dropped off (a salty black pool of soy with no discernible citrus tang). The basil chicken, despite its basil pesto marinade, didn’t have much of an herbal taste. It had a smokier flavor, which hovered a little on the dry side due to the longer cooking time. I bathed my chicken and beef in the sweet house dipping sauce, but skipped it entirely for the sweet and buttery Harami Skirt Steak. This cut is one of the top sellers, and it completely rocks. If I had my choice to repeat my experience, it would be a full nine ounces of the skirt steak, along with the Chilean sea bass, a savory and heat-inflected chunk that glides smoothly down my throat with little effort. Finally, nothing softens the heat better than grilled and charred sweet onions, and more skirt steak.
After the initial debacle in service, Ivan and the crew of Gyu Kaku recovered nicely to provide a light and hearty sunset dinner. Perhaps the environs here are best appreciated by youth with lots of booze, lots of meat, and high metabolisms. Give Gyu Kaku a little more time, and they should learn to shine.
Gyu Kaku, 7893 Monet Ave. (at Victoria Gardens), Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 899-4748. Dinner for two without drinks, around $44. Open daily for lunch and dinner.