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Hokkaido Seafood Buffet in Squirrel Hill serves up Japanese, other Asian favorites

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Background

Yes, Hokkaido Seafood Buffet is a chain, but a small one, with only four restaurants. Rooted in California, this is owner Hiroshi Kubota's first venture on the East Coast. Although he is on vacation, he notes on his Web site that he is part of a family of buffet-style restaurant specialists and learned his trade in the 15 years he spent living on Hokkaido Island, Japan.

Autumn Polito, manager of the Squirrel Hill location, which opened June 20, stresses that the restaurant strives to offer healthful gourmet options with an emphasis on quality ingredients. The buffet uses organic vegetables and features a Teppanyaki, or hibachi-style, grill.

"Our menu changes constantly by season," she says.

Atmosphere

Hokkaido's interior is a contemporary take on Asian restaurant design, eschewing hulking crystal chandeliers, silk flowers, Japanese screens and large sunlight-faded murals for something more cozy. The walls look like mahogany. Sleek booths anchor the corners of the room while freestanding tables feature a faux-wood veneer, and tall black chairs are backed by geometric leather panels that extend down to the floor, contrasting with the two front chrome legs.

A lightwave pattern with the names of various food stations arcs in front of the reddish granite wall behind the buffet. The wave shape flows into the top portion of bamboo blinds on floor-to-ceiling windows. The only flourish of color comes in the form of hanging glass lanterns in various hues of the rainbow. Asian characters are scribbled across them.

The buffet wraps around the corners of the room, cafeteria-style. It makes foraging the platters easier and discourages sneaky side swipes at popular items like fresh crab legs. Normally, my husband and I approach buffet crab legs as a team — one scooping and one blocking behind the other — so we don't get knocked over by a writhing stampede of diners. Such displays don't happen at Hokkaido. Through the chorus of clanging dishes, dropped silverware and whoosh of the hibachi grill, we can still hear a father coaxing his toddler to smile as he takes a group shot of his family. People might frequent the buffet more than three or four times, but they are leisurely about it, taking time to enjoy both the familiar and unusual offerings Chef Fan Yang comes up with. Yang worked at a restaurant in Japan for three years, and many of his dishes retain meticulous attention to detail in their presentation.

Menu

The abundance of colorful dishes was daunting, so we started with soup and a few starches. Hot and Sour Soup is a personal favorite, and the tofu was soaked in the thick broth, chile oil and black mushrooms long enough to absorb their flavor. Clam Chowder was rich and buttery, freckled with juicy clams and thick cubes of potato. Bean Butter and Buns were soft puffs made to look like blushing rosebuds, complete with a green stem. A dollop of red bean paste waited inside, tasting a bit like a less-sweetened version of apple butter. Pyramid Rice came fastened in pretty little triangles of reed leaves twined with string. It was a bit delicate for our taste, but a portion of Vegetable Fried Dumplings and Crab Rangoons quickly brought us back. The rangoons were smaller than normal, and a balanced blend of light crispiness and flavored cream cheese.

Keeping things light, we moved to the Sushi table. On this particular night, we had 22 tasty varieties to choose from, including: Ika (squid), Smoked Eel , Salmon , Tuna , Vegetable , Prawn and more. Many were accented by salty orange bursts of fish roe. Platters were frequently replaced. The Seaweed Salad was a sweet and tart tangle of green, not cluttered by excess sesame seeds.

"Asian delicacies" included Baby Clams , Frog Legs , Spicy Squid and Baby Lobsters. We found the squid a bit too chewy for our taste, but the clams were tender, served in an open shell. The frog legs were lightly breaded, which concealed the webbed foot enough to make us forget what we were eating. My husband was smitten with the sweet meat, comparing it to chicken, of course. Baby lobsters are more like crayfish and required extra effort to eat. They tasted sweet, but not as tender as their namesake.

We would have liked to have seen some Thai or Vietnamese dishes on the table to round out Asian cuisine, but were happy to find Korean Chicken , with slivers of green and red peppers and a dash of curry.

When walking past a meat carving station and rows of Seafood Casserole on pretty scallop shells, we felt the heat and steam coming from the hibachi station and decided to make a custom plate of steak, shrimp and various vegetables. The chef gave us our $2 tip's worth in a vigorous frenzy of flipped spatulas, fire balls and clanging rhythms as he precisely seared pieces of meat. At one point, he broke his serious concentration to squirt a stream of water past our faces from a bottle shaped like a little boy. The end result was incredibly fresh and mildly seasoned, not left doused in vegetable oil.

Next time we'll save room for the salad bar, American station and dessert table — all of which were well stocked.

Additional Information:

Hokkaido Seafood Buffet

Cuisine : Asian

Hours : 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays.

Entree price range : $8.99 lunch; $12.99 Saturday brunch; $15.99 dinner.

Notes : Major credit cards accepted. Hibachi station. Children ages 4-10 are half-price; age 3 and younger eat free; senior citizens age 65 and older receive a 10 percent discount. Available for parties, wedding receptions and meetings.

Address : 4536 Browns Hill Road, Squirrel Hill.

Details : 412-421-1422 or online.

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