"Watch me! Japanese cowboy!" With that, our chef at Edoya Japanese Restaurant flung two large shiny knives into the air and entertained while he chopped, sauteed and grilled dinner.

His comment may have been politically incorrect, but it worked: With open mouths and loud giggles, we watched, spellbound.

A meal at Edoya provides as much entertainment as sustenance. Flames leap from the grill. Chefs flip shrimp tails onto plates, toss eggs into their high red hats, crack eggs mid-air with a knife, then whisk the shell out of sight. All the sleight of hand is required for a hibachi chef at Edoya. You come away with respect: Not only must the chef cook, but he also must be capable of showmanship and easy banter with his audience.

After cooking, chefs often take a deep bow while diners applaud. Our chef, Nippa, deftly cooked chicken, steak, scallops, shrimp, fried rice and a vegetable medley--matchstick zucchini, chopped onions and mushrooms--on a grill surrounded on three sides by diners, then departed while we enjoyed his handiwork.

Edoya, which means Tokyo House--Edo is Tokyo's ancient name, manager Chon S. Shim explained--opened Sept. 27 in a new, pagoda-styled building on Centreville Road. Even before the restaurant officially opened its doors, people stopped by to look. The interior is inviting, with lanterns, screens and clean, contemporary lines.

Choices begin the minute you step inside--not just what to eat, but where. There are tables, booths, a sushi bar and the hibachi room. Check out the two menus--one for booths and tables, the other for the hibachi room--to help you decide. If you're hungry for shrimp tempura, noodles with vegetables or beef teriyaki, and prefer privacy, a booth is best.

Lunch entrees range from $5.95 to $12.95, most under $7; the dinner menu, $8.95 to around $13, with some higher exceptions, such as shabu shabu for two, meat and vegetables cooked table side. For $23.95, have a traditional soup-to-nuts Japanese meal that includes sushi, tempura, dumplings and meatballs.

If you want a culinary adventure, grab a seat at the sushi bar and let the chef guide you. Fresh fish includes eel, green mussel, sea urchin, octopus, abalone, salmon roe and 16 other types. Rolled sushi ranges from the more familiar California roll to the "atomic bomb roll"--cooked salmon, green onions and cucumber with hot sauce. The sushi bar is a la carte, with prices from $3 for two pieces to $6.95; most are below $4.

We opted for the hibachi room, where the action was: 42 diners around grills at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. The room was inviting, the crowd happy. It got noisy when several chefs were grilling, but not so noisy that we had to shout. One family was celebrating Dad's birthday, observed with a piece of ice cream cake topped with what appeared to be a purple and gold origami flower.

We were seated with four women who had arrived for their holiday gift exchange. Up to eight diners share a hibachi and chef, who arrives with fanfare, wheeling a cart of sauces, spices, vegetables, seafood and freshly cut meats. There's also a waiter. Mercifully for those of us who are chopstick-impaired, forks are provided. By the end of a meal, most diners are socializing with strangers at their grill.

The 24 appetizers range from gyoza (shrimp dumpling) to shisamo (broiled fish with eggs) and deep-fried soft-shell crab. It's possible to dine elegantly on just appetizers--there's sashimi (tuna, flounder and salmon), sticky soy bean, fried scallop with shrimp on a stick, seaweed salad and soup.

We opted for a chef's special of grilled chicken and beef ($12.95) and a scallops-and-shrimp combo ($18.95). Meals began with suimoni soup, a clear chicken broth flavored with a few diced scallions and paper-thin mushrooms. A salad followed--iceberg lettuce with mild peanut sauce.

Vegetables were cooked quickly with a squirt of water, vinegar and sesame seeds. The chef skillfully cooked two kinds of beef, chicken, scallops and shrimp all around. He flipped a sample of each food onto each diner's plate--which looks like pottery but actually is plastic--and then served the main dishes.

A diner at our table took one bite of her meat and balked: "This isn't right," she insisted. The chef tasted a piece, agreed, then asked another chef to do the same. The chunks of New York strip were chewy. Manager Shim quickly remedied the situation: After profuse apologies, tender filet mignon was substituted in generous portions.

Asked later about the incident, Shim said that USDA choice beef is used, but he discovered that one of two chefs in the kitchen that night had cut the wrong meat.

Before a chef is promoted to working on the hibachi, Shim said, he spends six months in the kitchen carving meats, chopping vegetables and cooking rice. This can be humbling: "We hire only experienced chefs," Shim says. Nippa, for example, has worked for Kobe Japanese restaurants. New chefs work at a grill serving two or three diners. We wondered how they learn all those knife and egg tricks.

"When they have a chance, they practice in the employee room," Shim said. "They work hard."

The first few months have been difficult for the restaurant, Shim said. "At first, service was very slow and terrible. I'm really ashamed. I tell people, when they come back, I promise it will be better."

Edoya's service has improved greatly. However, don't expect to eat dinner in under an hour in the grill room. It took us about 90 minutes from the time we were seated until we finished.

Edoya has several small private rooms for traditional low-on-the-floor Japanese dining. Although reservations are not taken except for groups of eight or more, Shim says groups requesting these rooms must reserve: "I need to have an extra server just for them." Edoya is a franchise, one of four in this area; others are in Herndon, Arlington and Washington (which does not have a grill). Shim also opened the Arlington location.

Carryout options include lunch box meals ($7-$9). Sushi fans can order party platters of 46 to 118 pieces that cost $35 to $100.

A word of caution: Cigarette smoking is allowed in the hibachi room. If you do not want to sit at the same table with smokers, tell the hostess upon arriving.

EDOYA JAPANESE RESTAURANT

* Address: Edoya Japanese Restaurant, 7911 Centreville Rd., Manassas, 703-369-0506 (Three other locations, in Herndon, Arlington and Washington).

* Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m., Friday until 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday, 12:30-3:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Reservations are taken only for groups of eight or more.

* Credit cards: Accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners' Club.

* Prices: A large range. Lunch entrees, $5.95-$12.95. Full dinners, $8.95-$23.95, about half under $15. Our dinner bill for two meals with tea and a beer came to $47.70, including tip.

* Children's menu: $3.50-$4.50 for teriyaki or fried rice.

* Low-fat selections: Good fish; avoid tempura and katsu (deep-fried cutlets) if dieting.

* Health-conscious: Personalize your selection, or try the seafood and vegetable assortment.

* Atmosphere: Upscale casual.

* Downside: Long waits on weekends.

* Upside: A fun dining experience.

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CAPTION: Chef David Nguyen prepares to grill steak, chicken, seafood and vegetables on a hibachi. Edoya opened Sept. 27 in a pagoda-styled new building on Centreville Road in Manassas.