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Getting what you pay for

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When a cuisine finally catches on in American culture, we suddenly begin to see all degrees of quality ranging from bona fide, authentic restaurants to those offering a loose translation. Authentic restaurants, typically the first ones to show up on the scene, are followed in time by variations on that theme, often owned by entrepreneurs who want to cash in on a popular trend.

Japanese cuisine is one cuisine that has become so popular that sushi, seaweed salads and miso soup are commonly found in area grocery stores. The number of Japanese restaurants in the area has grown exponentially. Other Asian restaurants have added sushi, soba and sake to their menus as well.

Traditional Japanese restaurants offer a calming quiet atmosphere, lots of natural wood, cozy tatami rooms, and the notes of the shakuhachi, the delicate bamboo flute. Other renditions of Japanese restaurants have dining areas with trendy designs and atmospheres that are noisy, sometimes even raucous.

However, the most important difference between these two kinds of restaurants is this: Some restaurants are food obsessed and chef-driven, while others are driven by the bottom line. That's not to say chef-driven restaurants don't need to take cash flow into consideration. They do, of course. Food or chef-driven Japanese restaurants offer pristine selections at high prices, which are to be expected given the extraordinary cost of the selection and shipping of premium fish and beef. Loose translations of Japanese restaurants offer lesser fish at more affordable prices. Chef-driven restaurants may evolve into the second; however, rarely does a restaurant conceived as a business turn into a food-obsessed restaurant.

The House of Shoto Japanese Steak House and Seafood and Sushi Bar, a restaurant in the second category, opened last September in the Ballantyne area in the Toringdon Marketplace by owners Larry Tran and his daughters Stephanie and Kim. The Tran family is native to southern Vietnam, in a town near Saigon. House of Shoto, named for the founder and dojo of the Japan Karate Association, is Larry Tran's fourth Japanese restaurant in North Carolina. His other Shoto restaurants are in Lexington (his first opening in 1999), Thomasville and Gastonia. This is the first of his restaurants to offer a sushi bar and cold premium sake and also to have "House of" as part of the name of the restaurant.

The large dining room at Shoto has sweeping ceilings, contrasting walls of yellow and blue, and is decorated here and there with something Asian. Booths line up and divide the center of the room while a Vietnamese good luck greeting hangs above the kitchen door. The small bar area offers seating, as does an open sushi bar.

The service, as I have frequently found in establishments near Charlotte's I-485 rim, is dependent on whether or not you're fortunate enough to get a knowledgeable server. An inexperienced server may give misinformation, offer poor timing, and is basically ineffective. The untrained, inexperienced servers here depend on Stephanie Tran and other experienced servers to make sense of the evening. Ms. Tran stays quite busy.

House of Shoto's menu is long, with 20 appetizers, about 100 maki and nigiri sushi selections, salads, 16 udon noodle dishes ($7 to $19.25), as well as over 20 entrees which range from hibachi chicken ($7.50) to teppanyaki lobster ($30). Entrees are straightforward without too much cleverness. In the kitchen are two employees who worked in Tran's other locations before coming to Charlotte. The wine list is spare by most standards, but does offer wines by the glass and premium sake. Japanese and domestic beers are available.

Shoto's sushi is lacking. Kim Tran and another employee operate the sushi station. You won't find a whisper of wasabi on the rice cushion beneath the nigiri, and the rolling technique is uneven and clumsy on the maki. The art of presentation is also absent.

Much better are the starters. One sure bet are the crisp salads. Layers of thinly sliced cucumbers in vinaigrette are buoyed by the ring of baby shrimp. For appetizers, the skewers of yakitori chicken proved irresistible, as did a selection of tempura vegetables that were lush among the tangle of udon noodles. The shumai dumplings, though, were weighty and mushy. The effect of the dumplings was lifted by the soups: the superior, refreshing miso and a densely flavored udon.

The reason excellent Japanese restaurants cost a lot of money is that, as in all things, premium products and services cost more -- you get what you pay for. At Shoto, the menu is reasonably priced.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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