hiro's effort at cooking far from heroic

STEVE BARNES Senior writer
Section: Life-Today,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, March 23, 2008

Correction: Correction published March 26, 2008 A review of Hiro's Japanese Restaurant in Colonie that appeared in Sunday's Life-Today section contained an error. The restaurant's lower level is wheelchair-accessible.

It's easy to achieve front-runner status when you're the only one. The challenge comes when others enter the arena. The 35-year-old Hiro's Japanese Restaurant in Colonie, once the sole example of its kind, has been eclipsed by newer, better restaurants, and two recent dinners proved why: The cooked food was dispiriting, sloppily presented and almost wholly without merit, while the sushi proved to be inexplicably expensive and not even on par with the fare from delivery restaurants. Let me say right off that, no, we did not dine at a hibachi more properly called teppanyaki table, where a chef does a performance-art version of cooking on an iron griddle around which diners sit. And let me anticipate arguments right off by saying that one shouldn't have to sit at such a table in order to be served acceptable food.

It's hard to overstate just how glum the food is at Hiro's, especially if the frame of reference is other area restaurants that care about hallmarks of Japanese cuisine including gorgeous presentation and fresh, light, pure flavors.

One of my companions, who normally loves teppanyaki restaurants and does not consider herself especially hard to please, judged dinner at Hiro's the second worst restaurant meal she's had in her adult life; put off by the food, she ate a bite or two of each course and stopped at Subway on the way home. One of our appetizers, mushroom teriyaki ($4.95), was a sad little bowl of quartered buttonmushrooms slicked with a teriyaki sauce that was both overly sweet and tongue-stunningly salty. Today, when exotic Japanese mushrooms like enoki, shiitake and maitake are available in supermarkets, it's shameful to be serving these generic, tasteless blobs. Beneath the mushrooms: flaps of wilted iceberg lettuce. Suffice it to say that teriyaki sauce and limp iceberg gain nothing from each other.

More iceberg, looking pathetic and obligatory, not decorative, appeared with our other appetizer, shrimp shumai ($3.95). The half-dozen steamed dumplings, each barely bigger than a screw-on soda cap, thankfully came with a dollop of potent mustard; without it they tasted like lukewarm, wet cotton balls, and the one we dissected appeared to have no more than a single tiny salad shrimp inside.

The half-hearted attempts at garnishing barely improved on one of our entrees, pork shogayaki ($12.95). About 10 thin slices of pork, each perhaps 2 inches square, arrived nestled on a sizzling platter and flanked by two broccoli florets and a chunk of underripe tomato. The tomato doesn't play a major role in Japanese cuisine anyway, and a wedge of the hothouse variety surely doesn't belong on a plate with pork marinated in ginger and soy.

I hoped to salvage the gummy side of rice by using it to sop up the sauce, but it turned out there wasn't any extra: What I'd taken to be a puddle of dark sauce in the corner of the sizzle platter turned out to be burn marks on the metal from years of use. Veined with fat and connective tissue, the pork also had a curious flavor, one that I identified as Canadian bacon and my companion that night said tasted exactly like a side of breakfast ham at the Gateway Diner.

We had high hopes for the sushi-sashimi combo entree, an expectation based largely on the fact that the dish, at $25.95, was notably more expensive than any other sushi dinner on the menu. What showed up was a humdrum array of predictable nigiri and sashimi salmon, tuna, mackerel, shrimp plus a small-bore maki roll, also with tuna. Acceptable but unexceptional, the fish was also less attractively plated, less abundant and cost $10 more than what Sushi House in Albany will deliver when I'm at home watching TV.

All around us on the Saturday night we visited were the sounds and smells of a teppanyaki restaurant. Metal spatulas and knives pinged off the griddle, salt and pepper shakers knocked and twirled, flaring flames brought appreciative "Ooohhhs" from diners, and folks at the bar sipped cocktails from mugs that resembled buddhas. Hiro's isn't an ugly space, but it looks dated like a 1970s split-level ranch and the spot-stained tiles in the drop ceiling suggest a refurbishment is long overdue.

To see if the first experience was an aberration, a supremely off night, another visit was in order on a quiet weeknight. While the service was friendlier, the food proved even worse. This time, even the pork shogayaki's sizzle plate came garnished with a hank of wilting iceberg lettuce on a hot metal platter? the pork was fattier and saltier, and the nuggets of fish in the salmon teriyaki skewers were overcooked to the point of resembling orange flannel on a stick.

At least the service was fast: On one night we were able to order, eat a three-course dinner, pay and leave in less than 75 minutes; another meal, with extra courses, took just 50 minutes.

Dinner for two including two soups, two appetizers, two entrees and two beers totaled $81.77 after tax and tip on one night, about $10 less on the other.

Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.

****FACT BOX:****

Hiro's Japanese Restaurant1933 Central Ave., Colonie Phone: 456-1180 Credit Cards: AE, M, V, D Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2::30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Dinner, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; closed Monday. Parking/access: Parking lot available but can fill up on busy nights. The lower dining room and bar area is wheelchair-inaccessible due to stairs, but some regular tables, teppanyaki seating and the sushi bar are fully accessible. Attire: Casual to dressy -- jeans to blazers. Menu is a la carte: Appetizers average $4. Kitchen entrees average $12.50 (add $4.95 for soup, salad, rice, tea and dessert); hibachi-table dinners cost $14.95 to $24.95 and include appetizer, tea, salad and dessert; sushi dinners average $18. Food and beverage (Half-star): Large but predictable selection of Japanese classics prepared with haste but without imagination or care. Even the sushi platters are unbeautiful, and kitchen appetizers and entrees are served with the most perfunctory of sides and garnishes. Uninteresting beer and sake list; some fun cocktail specials. Full bar. Service (* *): Exceedingly fast, neither unfriendly nor warm. Atmosphere (* 1/2): The place looks like a 1970s-era American split-level ranch furnished by someone who took a package tour to Japan soon after the house was built. The teppanyaki tables make the whole restaurant, and anyone who has sat in it for an hour, redolent of soy and grease and grilled meat. Overall rating: * Key: One to four stars -- four excellent, two average. Overall rating an average of the three categories with emphasis on food. Past reviews available online at http://timesunion.com/life/restaurants.