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Edo ups the ante in Toco Hills

Kosher cupcakes, Oreo ice cream and pizza with an egg on it once defined the outermost edges of culinary novelty at Toco Hills Shopping Center. Culinary fusion or hyphenated luxury within the elderly strip mall extended just to the upholstered confines of the French-German Petit Auberge.

No more. After a thorough makeover, incoming Toco tenants include not only a soul-food outlet (Collard Greens Cafe) but Edo, a large and ambitious Japanese steak-and-sushi house with Korean and American overtones. Yee-ha. Everything's up-to-date in the old neighborhood. But will yellow-tail tuna negiri, volcano roll and what the menu calls "Calamari frito Japanese style" draw crowds? Can it last? Is it fun?

The word Edo is an old name for Tokyo, with the implication of being at the center of things, the seat of the emperor and of power. Edo the restaurant is formal and sumptuous in somewhat the same spirit, with a grand foyer, a lounge bar, tatami rooms, numerous hibachi-grill tables, a sushi bar, Western-style tables and a wine list. Banners, murals, posters, potted orchids, teahouse decor and attempts at authentic details -- hot hand towels at the start of dinner service, for instance -- create a sensual, away-with-all-cares ambience within what amounts to a subdivided warehouse.

Having grown allergic to impromptu encounter groups as a result of hibachi therapy at Benihana, I opted for a la carte service on both trips to Edo. Customers at adjoining tables, who uniformly seemed to be having fine times, were typically 30- and 40-ish couples and family groups, some with kids and nearly all Caucasian. The single most sophisticated patron I observed was a bespectacled boy of perhaps 9. He ordered for himself, used chopsticks the way most boys his age wield TV remotes and, after reconnoitering the tatami rooms, asked his parents why they hadn't requested one.

Though I couldn't see what the smart boy ate, I expect he'd have made short work of my admirable spider roll, a comparatively large portion of fried soft-shell crab, avocado, flying fish eggs, Japanese mayo and sushi rice served with pickled ginger and wasabi ($8). Ditto the crisp, almost greaseless tempura shrimp, which turn up in various combinations and courses. (A shrimp and vegetable tempura dinner, including salad, steamed rice and miso soup, for instance, costs $13.95.) High marks, too, for the teriyaki salmon dinner served with so-so Japanese pickles, mayonnaise slaw and the accoutrements previously mentioned ($12.95). The salmon, a sweet, fresh, moderate-size cut of fish, was cooked through, not remotely raw or even rare, quite American-traditional. Teriyaki-coated chicken strips, also sweet -- actually very sweet -- were pleasant to eat in the way of movie-house refreshments. After downing every morsel, you assure yourself that you'll never do that again ($11.95).

Aside from several lobster and steak "House dinner specials" in the $25-$40 range, menu prices mirror the kitchen's moderate serving sizes and the thrifty neighborhood's budgets. About half the hibachi combination dinners, which include shrimp appetizer, soup, salad, grilled vegetables and sherbet, can be had for $15-$22.

When checking out restaurants, I usually pick and choose from the menu rather than jump into soup-to-nuts combos. Just doing my job. But I doubt that the slackest schoolboy would have been impressed with the goma-ae, overly cold boiled spinach topped with a thick sesame sauce that tasted right out of the jar ($3). Yakko-tofu, chilled fried tofu with green onions and shredded dried bonito, made no particular impression ($3.50). Dry, tough ton-katsu, a battered-and-fried pork cutlet, tasted manufactured rather than recently prepared ($12.95 dinner). Yet a platter of assorted sushi pieces -- these come in several sizes and combinations -- was more than merely acceptable in freshness, variety and skillful formulation.

In a pinch, in other words, stick with raw or cooked seafood, steamed rice and whatever sauces or dips are included.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave a voice mail at 404-614-2514.

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