“What Rocky H. Aoki started as a tiny four-table restaurant in Manhattan on October 9, 1964, serving one or two customers a day, has grown into an international restaurant organization that has profoundly changed American eating habits. When the first Benihana opened forty years ago, Japanese cuisine was unknown to most Americans and the idea of having a chef prepare an entire meal right at your table was unheard of. Blending exotic Japanese dishes with a dazzling chef performance may have been a radical idea in dining at the time, but it has been a recipe for success at Benihana with more than 160 million meals being served in the last forty years.”
With 83 outlets (just of Benihanas, let alone their 25 RA Sushi and 9 Haru locales) and climbing, Benihana is probably the best known Japanese restaurant chain in the world – certainly in the Americas where the bulk of its spots are located. It’s ubiquitous enough, and as much a part of the cultural scene, that the official NY State Tourism website includes it as part of their gastronomic promotions. And while that original four table spot that Aoki started 47 years ago is gone, it’s expanded replacement on the same block of West 56th Street is still going strong last I checked. The Buenos Aires Benihana, at the corner of Arenales and Colonel Diaz, in the Alto Palermo shopping mall right, opened a few months back. I had no real intention of checking the place out for a review – Henry and I had made a note of it as some place that might be fun to take his niece and nephew for one of their birthdays – those teppanyaki tables with all the flashy moves by the table’s chef are pretty much a guaranteed crowd pleaser for kids and adolescents, and maybe even us on occasion. [Closed in 2014.]
But then a local friend posted that they’d gotten takeout sushi from the place and they had fresh tuna. Now, for those of you from other lands, that may not sound like anything special, but you must understand that ordering tuna in a BsAs sushi bar means getting canned tuna, usually mixed with mayonnaise or cream cheese, rolled up in rice and seaweed. She posted delectable looking photos. Our friend Allan proposed a night out this last week and the three of us headed there for dinner. I can’t say that I had high expectations – Benihana is, like many a chain restaurant, noted for certain things – in this case those stir-fries at the teppanyaki tables – and of course that big room chain restaurant feel. And, they didn’t disappoint. Host(esse)s and managers had walkie talkies going to figure out where to seat people (really, it’s not THAT big). The room was populated by a mix of tourists and local families out for the experience, and, strangely, a good number of young couples who looked like they might be out on first dates. Wouldn’t be my first choice, though I suppose it takes some of the pressure off.
We decided against the teppanyaki tables because it turns out, you can only eat the teppanyaki service – a series of dishes that you select from and the chef chops and cooks and serves with flair right there – at those tables – no sushi allowed, no requests from other parts of the menu. So we took a table next to one of those where we could watch, but eat what we wanted . Our waiter, friendly from the get-go, but a bit aggressive in trying to get the order (come on, give us a moment to actually open the menus, it’s only been 15 seconds since you gave them to us). And, I don’t want to use the word efficient here, because efficient implies not only speed, but accuracy of some sort, things certainly moved with high velocity throughout the meal – there’s definitely an air that they want you to eat, drink, pay and get out, preferably as soon as possible. And it wasn’t as if they had people waiting – the room was never more than half full while we were there – so they didn’t need the tables. It’s just their style, and it really didn’t work, in fact it was downright irritating.
Despite the fact that we ordered a round of appetizers and then main courses to follow, food came out at random, and they weren’t keen on doing anything about that. So here, in order of service…
Henry’s soup and salad, which came with his stir-fried main course, arrived within two minutes of placing our order. The soup, a fairly insipid broth with a piece or two of tofu and mushroom floating about, the salad, fresh, but doused in an overly sweet miso-ginger dressing (though quick online research reveals that this is apparently extremely popular amongst the Benihana devotees).
Then his “spicy hibachi chicken” arrived – he hadn’t finished either soup or salad – noted on the menu as “Sliced chicken breast grilled with mushrooms in a special spicy homemade sauce.” – might want to mention that it’s also loaded with shrimp on the plate, for those who, hey, might be allergic. This was, hands down, the best dish of the evening however – it actually had a bit of a kick, and, of course, this type of dish is what the place is noted for.
My main course arrived a couple of minutes later, a vegetable tempura – a bit oily as obvious from the photo – but tasty, and the dipping sauce was great. But they wouldn’t take it back to the kitchen and serve it after my appetizer of sashimi – it was “too late” because it was already cooked.
My sashimi combo, what was intended as my appetizer (despite the size, I just wanted the raw fish first, and ordered it that way) came before we were halfway through the vegetable tempura, which the waiter just shoved to the center of the table using the sashimi plate as a wedge. A nice selection of fish and shellfish, certainly ample, if pricey (79 pesos for 16 pieces means 5 pesos apiece for sashimi). Cut too thick, there was just no delicacy. And, all the fish and shellfish tasted… watery. Not old, but if I were to guess, and we talked about this as Allan’s sushi arrived shortly, it was as all as if it had been long frozen and just thawed out and sliced, and very possibly having been cut long before and just left wrapped up ready to be slapped onto plates. The texture, at trifle mealy, and flavor intensity were just lacking. And the wasabi had absolutely no kick, even tasted on its own – clearly mixed up from powder or paste hours before. The soy sauce on the table we all found to be intensely salty – the little refillable bottles said Kikkoman, but I don’t think I’ve ever had Kikkoman soy that was that salty.
Allan’s nigiri sampler arrived about two minutes later (were they just serving us each one at a time, around the table, with all of our food?) – same problem with the fish, and the tamago, the folded omelette, was too sickly sweet to eat.
And his mixed ceviche came within a minute of the sushi being delivered – he insisted it be taken back to the kitchen – they didn’t object this time, presumably because it was a cold dish, but I also have no doubt that it just got stuck in the refrigerator or on a counter to await him being ready. The fish and shellfish were cut the same way as for sushi, so way too thick and big of pieces for a ceviche – nothing was cured through, and the curing liquid was devoid of spice – it was just all lemon juice. Easily the least pleasant dish on the table, as evidenced by being the only thing we didn’t finish.
Wanted to try one cooked sushi roll as well – my favorite as always the salmon skin roll. This turned out to be pretty good. Well flavored, nicely packed with salmon skin and salmon, a bit too much on the toasted bonito flakes atop, but those were easily brushed to the side. Our second favorite dish of the eve.
So, other than to our palates, what were the damages? A whopping 481 pesos. Now, much of that was in beverage – four cocktails, a small bottle of sake, and an iced tea came to 176 pesos by themselves… oh, and by the way, the menu offers for iced tea and soft drinks a free refill – they charged on the bill for the refill at full price, and then the waiter went into a little feigned drama about how that could have happened, and then went and took it off the bill. But that still means that three appetizers and three main courses came to just under 300 pesos, given that there was also a 24 peso charge for three of us at the table – not unusual these days, but at the menu prices, an insult. And large lettered admonitions at the bottom in Spanish, English and Portuguese that the waiter’s tip was not included.
So, would I go back? Probably only for our original idea – the teppanyaki table looked like fun, and the one dish from that menu we tried was far and away the best thing we ate. And we’d take the kids. Sometimes it’s best to just go somewhere and eat what they’re noted for, and avoid the rest….