There aren't many restaurants in Kansas City that operate out of former movie theaters. Until recently, in fact, I could name just two (not counting the Marquee Lounge, inside the AMC Mainstreet 6, which is still a cinema). There's the creperie Chez Elle, located in the former auditorium of the 99-year-old Summit Theatre, and the Fairway Houlihan's, which was once the original Fine Arts Theatre.
Now there's a third: Sama Zama has opened at 425 Westport Road, which was occupied for two decades by art houses: first the Bijou, then the original Tivoli Theater. (The popular sushi restaurant Matsu took over the storefront when the Tivoli moved inside Manor Square, in 1999.)
Jerry Harrington, owner of Tivoli Cinemas, has eaten at Sama Zama a few times since it opened in January. "I can be eating right where the projection booth used to be," he says, "depending on which table I'm sitting at."
The four-month-old restaurant is a projection of a different kind, the culmination of restaurateur Erika Koike's dream of creating Kansas City's first izakaya: a Japanese-style casual drinking establishment that serves more substantial — and stylish — food than a traditional lounge might. Think Asian tapas.
Koike introduced her first izakaya in 2007, when she opened the tiny One Bite Japanese Grill in Overland Park. Last year, when the lease came up, Yokohama-born Koike decided to move her business into the space left vacant by Matsu.
"There are more adventurous and open-minded diners there," she says. "The people coming here ask for the more unusual things on the menu. They're not afraid to try new things."
Koike wasn't afraid to try something new herself. Even after branding the One Bite name for five years in the suburbs, she opted to call her new midtown venue Sama Zama. "That's the Japanese word for variety," she says. "I thought it translated the concept better."
The menu stakes a claim on variety, with an ambitious array of options. There's not a wide range of flavors, though, which is part of the idea. Japanese dishes aren't renowned for their intensity of spice (leaving aside wasabi, of course, and the powdered blend of chili, ginger and sesame called shichimi), and Koike's focus is on ingredients. The jalapeño-teriyaki grilled beef, for example, lacks the fiery punch promised by its name (an omen of things not to come elsewhere on the menu) but doesn't want for texture or depth. (The calamari is also memorably tender.) No one leaves Sama Zama in a cloud of garlic and ginger, and that's fine with me.
More vexing is the kitchen's narrow technique. Nearly half of the items on the lengthy list of starters are deep-fried or pan-fried, making for some repetitive eating if you're sharing a tableful of snacks. (And at some of these prices, you should plan to share, even when — as with the doll-sized steak skewers — passing food around gets a little awkward.)
One exception to all that oil would be a steaming bowl of tonkotsu ramen. I say "would be" because I can't yet say for sure; it was sold out on each of my visits to the restaurant. What I do know: Koike promises that her ramen is nothing like the bargain-basement prefab blocks of salt familiar to college kids and landlocked Midwesterners who haven't yet sampled New York's 21st-century ramen revival. "Our ramen noodles are imported directly from a noodle manufacturer in Japan," she says. "They're shipped to us fresh-frozen. The texture is very different."
Denied ramen, I went instead with Koike's other calling card: the thick, savory pancake called okonomi yaki. It's a big seller and a great starter, and so filling that it's tempting to skip the second course. The base of the dish is a grilled flapjack the thickness of a cigarette box, made of wheat flour, shredded cabbage, scallions and Japanese pickled ginger. The meatless modan okonomi yaki, topped with mushrooms and a frizzy jumble of fried egg noodles, is thoroughly satisfying. (The vegetarian choices here are generally good: plump fried dumplings stuffed with finely chopped shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, cabbage, chives and brown rice; supple stalks of garlicky sautéed asparagus; thick ropes of udon noodles draped over sautéed onions, carrots and broccoli.)
Okonomi yaki is another dish best split among friends. It's a daunting item to tackle as an individual meal, and it gets cold quickly. It's not cheap, either, but if money is on your mind, the trick is to go to Sama Zama on Sunday nights. The grilled dishes then are half-price — including succulent spare ribs and petite skewers of that jalapeño-teriyaki steak (which, at the regular price, are about three bucks a bite). On that evening, it's possible to cobble together a modestly priced and distinctive meal.
In the spirit of a storefront where you used to be able to mix buttery popcorn, syrupy soda and factory-made candy, it's easy at Sama Zama to satisfy cravings in completely the wrong order. Meat might lead to a salad — in my case, one night, that meant a cocktail glass tidily packed with strands of neon-green seaweed tossed in Koike's own mayonnaise-based Mogu Mogu sauce and dappled with crunchy bits of fried noodles. It's the best seaweed I can recall having in this part of the country.
The omu raisu, a paper-thin sheath of fried egg neatly folded around a filling of fried rice and chicken, is a tasty spin on an omelet, but it suffers from this place's purposeful lack of kick. The menu insists that it's "tomato-enhanced." Koike says that means a dash of tomato sauce. I'd have preferred even a little Heinz ketchup. Terminally bland is a duo of rice balls wrapped around a center of seasoned cha-shu pork; the plate I tried needed a hell of a lot more pork to make it interesting. No matter how much you think you like sticky rice, something this plain triggers memories of the prisoners' food in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Come dessert time on one of my visits, I wanted nothing more than a fried spring roll stuffed with Koike's seaweed salad. That was too out of order for my tablemates (whose movie was this, anyway?), who preferred the traditional green-tea ice cream.
The servers at Sama Zama get a lot more excited about another dessert, the multicultural creation called "age raspberry maki." It's where New York Jewish delicatessen meets Tokyo spring roll: a dollop of creamy cheesecake tucked into an envelope of tissue-thin pastry wrapper, deep-fried and served on a plate adorned with squiggles of raspberry puree. It doesn't appeal to me (though I have friends who swear by it). Then again, it's the kind of novelty that would be right at home in today's more upscale movie theaters. Even in Westport, the snacks have taken over.