2011.Jan.31 Monday · 10 comments

in Restaurants

“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…

Benihana - soup and salad

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).

Benihana - spicy hibachi chicken

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.

Benihana - vegetable tempura

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.

Benihana - sashimi combo

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.

Benihana - nigiri sampler

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.

Benihana - ceviche mixto

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.

Benihana - salmon skin roll

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….


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharyn Evron January 31, 2011 at 14:15

Hey Dan. . .as we have talked about this already, I do hope you guys give the sushi one more go ’round (and like you said. . .try the delivery).

We ordered it 3x the first week. . .that is how impressed we were. I mentioned to Mike what you said about how the fish tasted watery and his reply was. . . .”that is what I say about the sushi EVERYWHERE else in this town”. So you can imagine how shocked we were when for once it didn’t taste that way.

So here’s to hoping it was just an off night for you guys (although a pricey one at that). Odds are we will order again one night this week and I will keep my fingers crossed that the quality of will match that of our previous orders.

dan January 31, 2011 at 15:06

We may at some point, though it’s not as conveniently located to us for takeout as it is to you, so we shall see. Henry does want to take his niece and nephew there for a night out – at the teppanyaki tables, so we’ll probably get back there sometime soon for that.

Paz February 1, 2011 at 20:45

Take the kids and me! Take me! 😉


dan February 1, 2011 at 21:02

Well, get thee on a plane and get down here already! I can’t fathom why you want to sit through the worst blizzard in 20 years….

Camilo Horovitz February 2, 2011 at 00:08

Watch out, this is what happens when you write an unfavorable review for Benihana:

dan February 2, 2011 at 08:27

I don’t think I’m going to worry a whole lot about it, but thanks for sharing that – it’s almost funny – I wonder how it will turn out. I did a little looking out of curiosity – it was the local franchiser of the property in Kuwait who sued a local blogger. Corporate headquarters of Benihana, which runs the Benihanas in the Americas says that such a move is “unprecedented”, but that they can’t control what a franchiser does (which to me seems weird – usually when a company franchises a branch they include some sort of agreement that they have control over things that might cause the chain embarrassment or negative publicity). Since this just happened in the last couple of days, it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.

Camilo Horovitz February 2, 2011 at 19:54

Yes, it’s more of a regional curiosity. It seems that the American Benihana headquarters says it’s not even their franchise but a franchise of Benihana of Tokyo, with whom they just share the brand but split the regional markets. I’m following the news too! Probably just schadenfreude as in all likelihood it will turn out bad for Benihana of Kuwait.

dan July 29, 2012 at 10:43

A follow-up to our Benihana saga – no, I didn’t get sued. But, enough people suggested that I give it another try that I’ve done so. In two ways – and neither, unfortunately, does much to change my opinion.

The first time, Henry and I were off to the movies at the nearby Cinemark Palermo and decided to grab a bite for lunch beforehand. We walked in, the place was no more than half full. Greeted by a young man at the door, we asked for one of the teppanyaki tables and he cheerfully headed us that way. There are four of those in the dining room – two were filled with guests, the other two empty, and he started to seat us at one of the latter. A young woman, came running up and whispered to him, and then turned to us and said, “could you give us just a minute or two, I need to set something up here first”. She pointed us to the bar.

We sat and waited, and waited, she passed by multiple times. After roughly ten minutes had gone by I stopped her and asked what was happening. She said, “there’s no space at the teppanyaki tables”. I said, “there are two of them empty, and now a couple of seats at the ones that were full.” She said, “yes, but I’m not seating you at those, you’ll have to wait.” “How long?” “At least 20 minutes, probably 30-40.” “You might have told us that at the beginning so we could have made a decision on whether to wait or take a regular table.” “Whatever, you don’t want to wait, you can leave.” We did.

The second time – yes, after that, there was a second time – I was on my own, and home, and noticed that Buenos Aires Delivery has added Benihana to their list of restaurants that deliver to our area. I decided to give the sushi another shot…

Benihana - sushi delivery

… Now, off the bat, more expensive than any of the other sushi delivery options for our ‘hood. By about a third. The sushi did arrive in a timely manner – not delivered by someone from the restaurant, but sent in a taxi – the driver ringing our bell right on time. That’s got to cost them, and might explain part of the high pricing (is this a case where one tips a BA taxi driver, which isn’t the standard? I decided yes.)

The sushi – the selection of nigiri were good – but the same notes on both the wasabi and soy as before – the former being completely devoid of heat, the latter being really too salty to use, thankfully I have soy sauce here in the house that I could use instead. The fish this time tasted much more vibrant and fresher. The same with the two rolls I tried – an excellent “prawn lovers” roll of tempura prawn wrapped in rice and then wrapped in nigiri prawn, and, a decent if not great Rainbow roll. I do like that they sliced them very thinly, makes them more bite-sized than some places do. Plenty of food, but for two rolls and a nigiri selection, the 185 peso price tag is a bit much when I can get the same from other delivery services via BAD or local joints for about 125-150.

Given the service faux pas at the lunch visit attempt, I don’t know that I’d return, and given the prices, I don’t know that I’d order from them again.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: