The new Koen Japanese BBQ & Sushi is offering an experience like no other in Lincoln — patrons become chefs, cooking their own meals at smokeless grills built into their tables.
“Yakiniku” is the Japanese take on Korean barbecue, which, according to Koen’s website, means grilling marinated thinly sliced premium cuts of protein on a gas or charcoal grill. The Japanese put their own spin on the concept and added soy- and gochujang-based dipping sauces.
The technique spread in Japan after WWII, and ventilated grills came about in the 1980s, making dining experiences more comfortable.
Koen, meaning “a gathering place” in Japanese, has 21 grills at its south Lincoln location at 2601 Jamie Lane, next door to Walmart, with more grills slated for its outdoor seating area.
“It was very challenging for the fire inspectors,” Koen manager Inez Retnosari said. “This was something new for them.”
Koen is owned by Brian Choi, who purchased and has operated Kinja at 70th Street and Pioneers Boulevard since 2010. He got his start in Lincoln helping his family at Shogun -- another unique Japanese restaurant, where cooks prepare meals tableside. He missed Japanese barbecue and wanted to introduce the concept to Lincoln.
He began with a soft opening in September and officially opened the restaurant on Nov. 28.
“The idea,” Retnosari said, “is to bring the Lincoln community together.”
Grilling patrons can order a la carte or a “course” meal.
With a la carte, you select what items to enjoy and how much you want to spend, with prices ranging from $4 (vegetable) to $16 (wagyu beef). You get to choose one of six sauces for basting/dipping, with extra sauces costing $1 each. The meat choices are extensive, with beef, poultry (including duck), lamb, pork, shrimp and scallops available.
A course meal is predetermined, with three options: samurai ($65), premium ($75) or wagyu ($100). The course meal includes soup, salad and dessert. We chose the premium course and ordered a specialty roll from the sushi menu.
The course meals feature all the sauces, with each one covering a different piece of meat. The premium course is heavy on beef, which we enjoyed, but our favorite was the small lamb chop coated in basil. Cooked medium rare, it was delightful.
Koen’s sushi menu is extensive, with Retnosari saying it’s a bit more complex than Kinja’s. The menu ranges from basic to diverse. We, for example, tried the Russian Roulette ($14), a specialty roll with spicy tuna, avocado topped with salmon and a mango sauce. As you might guess, it was extremely rich, with the mango sauce really giving it its “oomph.” Grade: A.
I have to admit, I’m a bit torn on Koen’s concept. One of the reasons I dine out is so I don’t have to prepare a meal at home. On the other hand, I love how interactive it is. Prior to getting our food, we watched a large group with several children delight in the process. They were talking, cooking and having a wonderful time.
We found we enjoyed grilling too, from finding the best places for cooking on the grill (edges are perfect for veggies) to discussing the various sauces used on our “course” meal.
Of course, if you don’t want to cook, you can order appetizers and sushi instead. The restaurant’s sushi bar/lounge is separate from the main dining room. The lunch menu includes bento boxes, featuring a choice of Japanese dishes.
Koen’s staff is well-trained, from demonstrating how to use the grills to offering suggestions from the menu. Grade: A- (The minus is for the chef -- me -- overcooking a couple pieces of meat.)
Koen ranks right up there with the Blue Orchid and Chef Karim’s Place as Lincoln’s most aesthetically pleasing restaurants. The eatery offers a sushi bar/lounge and a main dining area with 21 smokeless grills at booths or community tables. Long-legged patrons may want to avoid a booth. At 6-foot, I felt cramped by the grill.
Attractive sliding partitions provide some privacy at the community tables. I’ve seen nothing like them in Lincoln before. Koen is filled with hard surfaces, but addresses any noise issues with a creatively carved low ceiling. Other highlights include several small built-ins containing vases and large plants. Grade: A+
For vegetarians, the best bet is sushi, where seven vegetable options are among the classic and specialty rolls, ranging in price from $4 (cucumber roll) to $16 (Koen vegetable roll with avocado, cucumber and shiitake mushrooms). The grill is primarily for meat eaters, but there are five vegetables available to grill for $4 each (asparagus, broccoli, corn, sweet potato and zucchini). There’s also kimchi (cabbage, radish and cucumber). Koen has a large gluten-free menu broken down into sushi and barbecue items. Grade: A
Jeff Korbelik is the tasting room manager at James Arthur Vineyards, former Journal Star features editor and author of “Lost Restaurants of Lincoln.” He’s been writing restaurant reviews for Ground Zero since 1998.