I was invited along with some fellow bloggers to try the food at Benihana this week. Although Benihana has been around since the 1964 (yes that was before I was born!) and now has 140 restaurants round the world, I’ve never actually been to one. But its USP is the chef cooks and serves the food in front of you with much juggling of sharp cooking implements, salt and pepper grinders and raw eggs!
Aoki, a Japanese wrestler who had qualified for, but did not attend, the 1960 Olympics started the restaurant in New York with $10,000 earned from driving an ice cream truck in Harlem. The first restaurant was named Benihana meaning red flower after the coffee shop owned by Aoki’s parents in Tokyo. It was one of many restaurants jostling for trade in NY until by chance a journalist from the Herald Tribune ate there and gave it a rave review. After that the Beatles and Muhamed Ali were among those who visited.
These days there are branches across America, and from Argentina to Australia, Trinidad to Thailand, Slovakia to Saudi Arabia. In London there is a branch on the Kings Road – and it was at Benihana Chelsea that a group of bloggers, who focus on “where to go in London,” descended. The idea of this night out (with cocktails of forest berries and Vodka) was to see whether Benihana would be a cool place for a family lunch – and to cut to the chase – and after another berry cocktail – I was sure it would! The good news is I still feel the same totally sober and several days later.
On arrival we were served sushi as an appetiser – tuna and salmon. Tuna happens to be my favourite so it started well. Then the chef arrived at our table. He was rather sweet with a surprising sense of humour centring around juggling cooking implements in a spectacular way , playing with fire, or topping and tailing a row of large prawns with a massive knife in about 5 seconds and then saying drily: “It’s my first day!”
We sampled a variation of the Kabuki party menu and the theatrical chef’s tricks I felt were certain to amuse young children and teenagers. Not least the stack of onion rings with steam coming out of the top being shunted across the grill like a steam train – yes the chef made the train noises! We started out with Japanese onion soup and salad – which come with all the menus followed by the aforementioned prawns, courgettes and the onion steam train – officially known as an “onion volcano”. A bowl of hibachi rice came next – to those unaquainted with Japanese menus this is egg fried rice. I wish I’d watched more carefully as it was prepared – then again I fear it will never work quite as well in my no-longer-non-stick frying pan , whatever technique I employ.
We then had hibachi chicken and mushrooms; hibachi steak and hibachi vegetables – all chopped, diced and fried in front of us, so fast there was just time to eat one item before the next arrived. The steak was cooked rare or medium rare as you wanted it and these guys know their beef and know how to cook it. They need to when you also have Wagyu beef on the menu at £68 (including appetisers and rice) as opposed to £39 all in for the Kabuki menu. I’ve never had Wagyu beef but, assuming it’s twice as good as the “ordinary” steak, this must be a carnivore’s Nirvana.
Finally we were treated to some truly delicious Black Cod – not normally part of the party menu – and fortuitously a favourite of mine. Actually it was not quite finally – we ended the meal with an amazing ice cream tempura – not for those on a diet!
Aside from the party menus and set lunches, you can go a la carte and enjoy sushi – or filet steak, chateaubriand, seafood or lobster all cooked at your table.
It’s the perfect place for a birthday meal for a group of friends, but I’m also determined to take the kids along to try the children’s menu available for the under 10s. For between £12 and £18 you can get a children’s portion of prawn’s , steak or a combination with appetisers , rice and pudding included. And there are appropriately named cocktails – Shirley Temple or Snow White – non alcoholic obviously! Yes, it will cost more than the standard kids pizza meal. But it’s something different and fun and something they will definitely remember – as long as they also remember that being a Benihana chef is not something they should ever try at home!