Benihana Restaurant – Japanese teppan yaki dining in the heart of London – words Kat Amos

Japanese restaurant, Benihana, has an unusual history. Its founder, ‘Rocky’ (or Hiroaki Aoki), b.1938, son of a Samurai descendent and restaurateur, was a professional wrestler.

Staff enthusiastically explain ‘Rocky’s’ journey as we take our seats in the Piccadilly branch for lunch; after ‘Rocky’s’ success in wrestling (in 1995 he was, they proudly tell us, included in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame), he pursued his passion for food, a passion inherited from his father.

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He saved $10,000 selling ice-cream from a rented Mister Softee ice-cream truck in Harlem and, eventually, opened his own restaurant: a restaurant with which he introduced to America an unusual style of Japanese dining, “teppan yaki”, where chefs cook on a large steel hotplate, surrounded by diners, and provide entertainment, juggling knives and creating impressive fire displays with food and alcohol that the diners consume. “Teppan yaki” has become what Benihana is known for and Benihana’s idiosyncratic founder and history have been somewhat forgotten, for the excitement and drama of its style of cooking.

There is certainly an art to being a Benihana chef. Ours – welcoming, funny, charming – flips and lights our food with inimitable deft and elegance on the hotplate that so hot, we are told, can cook a steak in seconds. An onion becomes a neatly-crafted mountain of evenly cut rings and is, seconds later, in flames that leap up a few feet into the air; chicken is tossed up and down in teriyaki sauce that simmers while our chef juggles with an array of knives and other cooking implements – all done with ease and calmness and complimented by cheery conversation. And, for all the performativity, the food does not suffer. Ingredients here are fresh – the fish, meat, vegetables – and, of course, they have to be, considering that the diner sees everything going onto the hotplate before it is cooked. Flavours are simple and, we are told, some recipes have not changed in over half a century (the very intense signature onion soup, for instance, that is made in-house and cooked over 8 hours, and the tart ginger salad dressing). Sauces, often traditional and made with typically Japanese ingredients, certainly have the potential to make any patron from Japan feel at once at home.

The black cod with miso sauce is worth the trip to any Benihana restaurant alone. While the cocktails are all similar in sweetness (all very sweet, despite the distinction made between sweet and bitter options) and the sushi is slightly disappointing (but why order sushi at a “teppan yaki” restaurant, really), the hot food, made at the table, is all thoroughly enjoyable to both watch being cooked (sliced in mid-air, set on fire, etc.), and to eat. There are no complex dishes here and little by way of ambition to create new or unusual flavours; however, it is in simplicity – the freshness, the traditional sauces and so on –where Benihana thrives. And, whether intentional or not, there is something incredibly heartwarming about the dessert, tempura ice-cream (warm deep-fried batter, wrapped around vanilla ice-cream), considering the restaurant’s roots in the back of an ice-cream truck in Harlem.

Benihana Restaurant – Japanese teppan yaki dining in the heart of London – words Kat Amos

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