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Performance art: The food alone—see the gyoza top right—makes DaRuMa worth a trip. But it’s the artistry and performance of the hibachi chefs that set it a step above the competition.Go for the Teppanyaki

Last spring, i found myself so entranced by the color of the walls in Gracie’s Cupcakes in the Bell Tower Shops that I stalked the owner and made her share the hue with me. (I’d share it with you, but I’ve sworn a cupcake oath of secrecy.) Grace Bolen was so generous with me—a wacky stranger high on her Red Velvet minis—that I was delighted to learn there was a DaRuMa connection. She’s the daughter of Hsin Chang, the Taiwanese patriarch behind DaRuMa. In other words, delicious food, great customer service, and an ultra-chic setting are all part of the Chang family legacy.

Tom and I decided to make date night an event by choosing teppanyaki, i.e. Japanese griddle broiling, over the other traditional and sushi dining options. Who can resist the opportunity to see a chef create a volcano out of an onion? There are now three DaRuMas in Southwest Florida, with a total of 40 teppanyaki tables among them. The original Naples restaurant has been open for 22 years while the Sarasota DaRuMa is a close second at 18 years. Clearly, the Chang family is doing something right.

Moments after we were seated, server/FGCU student Danielle Ammeson took our drink orders—bracingly warm sake ($6.95) and a respectable glass of house cabernet ($6.95). The food began to arrive almost immediately, starting with our clear Oriental broth with mushrooms and scallions, and iceberg lettuce salad. All teppanyaki entrées include soup, salad, shrimp flambé, stir fried vegetables, steamed rice and green tea, which makes the prices (from $17.95 for hibachi vegetarian to $33.95 for lobster and filet mignon) seem eminently reasonable. 

What was missing? The long waits we recall enduring at other Japanese steakhouses.

“That’s DaRuMa company policy,” General Manager Woody Doherty explained to us. “No diner waits more than 10 minutes to be served after being seated, even if the table isn’t full.”

Great policy. Tom and I took the last two seats at a table already well stocked with two families. 

“Do you think Charlie is too young to join us next time?” I whispered.

Rolling large: The Tuna Dragon Roll ups the ante of a traditional spicy tuna roll with tuna, avocado and roe on top.“These kids are at least nine,” Tom said. (Our son is two and a half.) “Charlie would probably try to climb onto the hot griddle.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, “but I bet he’d love the kids’ Karate Kid chicken” ($12.95).

Our chef was subdued compared with the hammy older chef at the next table, but he still had us all transfixed with his interpretation of a Christmas tree made out of fried rice.

“Where do your chefs get their training?” I asked Mr. Doherty.

“We have three excellent chefs from Japan,” he explained. “Hiroshi and T.J. in Fort Myers, and Kenny in Naples. They train all of our other chefs in-house.” Each chef makes 10 different meals to order, all of which must taste delicious, while simultaneously putting on a floor show. Once a week would be a challenge, much less multiple times every night. 

After making sure that the grilled lobster on the menu was from Maine, Tom and I both ordered it, mine with filet mignon, Tom’s with shrimp ($31.95). We also sampled the lobster crispy roll appetizer ($8.75), a flavorful spring roll. While the lobster and the shrimp were excellent, nothing beat my filet mignon. Some things just go perfectly together, and filet and hibachi are two of those things.

If I’d realized the Gracie’s Cupcake connection earlier, (recently renamed Grace and Shelly’s Cupcakes), we might have wandered over for dessert, but then we’d have missed DaRuMa’s turtle cheesecake ($7.95) and mixed-berry shortcake ($7.50). After getting past the initial awkwardness that always launches a teppanyaki dinner with strangers, we established enough of a rapport to share our desserts. The table erupted in accolades, while everyone agreed DaRuMa was a favorite restaurant.

In a few years, we’re sure our son will agree. Until then, we’ll keep going for a unique date night experience—and so should you. 

Making friends: The hibachi tables and the bar are set up so to promote a communal dining experience that might land you some new besties.DaRuMa

13499 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers; (239) 344-0037. Open daily 5-10 p.m. Sunset dinner specials 5-6 p.m. Live piano music Wednesday through Sunday 6:30-10 p.m. Reservations highly recommended. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible.

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