A Benediction for Benihana

Michael Nagrant / 07.14.08

For Rocky Aoki

I spent the better part of the last three years as a food writer lobbying against the likes of Benihana. That is to say, I generally stay away from lauding global mass-market restaurant franchises that distill ethnic cultures into palatable stereotypes through cheap entertainment and the service of second rate food products.

But, now, as I read the previous sentences, I think, “Man, what arrogant bastard wrote that?”

Sure, if your only experience of Japan is visiting a Benihana, you might think all the Japanese do is throw down saketinis and flip knives in the air. You’d think their chefs are all drunken Jackie Chan like buffoons who build onion ring volcanoes and toss raw eggs with spatulas (egg roll –ha).

But, what’s more likely, is that for the last couple generations of Americans, including myself, Benihana was a gathering place, a watering hole, and a general backdrop to the unfolding of everyday life.

When we were kids, maybe once a month my parents would drop my brother and I off with my grandma and go off for a mysterious date night. Generally, we didn’t really pay attention or even know what they were doing. We were more interested in the fact that we were in for a free-for-all, where our doting grandmother would allow us to pour cups of sugar (she had one of those diner-style sugar dispensers) on our cereal for dinner.

Hopped up on Corn Pops and sugary milk, we’d get fruit-loopy and jump like coked up monkeys on her rust colored sofa, until she pulled out the wooden spoon and threatened us with a beating. She could never catch us and we’d fly through her apartment, eventually collapsing into a good night’s sleep.

At some point during the night, my father would scoop us up, our heads nodding against his shoulder which smelled like toasted vanilla Churchill tobacco, and take us out to the car while we pretended to still be unconscious. We’d eventually fall back asleep in our own beds and when we awoke, we’d be back in our normal family mode.

Except, the nights my parents went to Benihana. Back in those days, if you ordered up a Mai Tai or some Tiki-style concoction, you’d get to keep the glass. Inevitably, a night at Benihana for my parents meant there’d be a new glazed ceramic tumbler bearing a freaky Totemic looking face or two dudes engaged in a semi-homoerotic Judo hold, sitting out on our gold fleck formica counter, waiting to be washed. I loved those tumblers and next to my Papa Smurf and Peanuts glasses from Hardee’s, they were the vessels I drank from most.

There were other Benihana memories:

I went there with a group of kids after a junior high dance. Clad in my finest Z. Cavaricci ensemble, I remember, much to the astonishment, horror, and delight of my buddy Nino and I, a girl in our party mimicked fellatio on an Udon noodle.

Benihana was the first place I ever sampled sushi, its California roll my gateway to creamy sea urchin and fatty o-toro.

I met my in-laws over dinner at Benihana. The shrimp tossing hi-jinks of our grill chef temporarily averted my fear of my future father-in-law’s gun collection (maybe only Ted Nugent has more.)

So, when I heard Benihana founder, Rocky Aoki, the Japanese embodiment of Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner and Richard Branson, died last week, I got a bit nostalgic. I realized I hadn’t been to a Benihana in years. These days, teriyaki on a menu made me snort. My sushi came from lacquered and strategically lit lounges like Mirai, Sushi Wabi, or Aria bar in Chicago, and if I wanted cheap but tasty grilled meat, I’d hit Tango Sur, which just also happened to serve great blood sausage.

After reading about Aoki’s life, I knew the only proper tribute to pay to he and Benihana would be to go back for a meal. So Saturday afternoon, I popped open Google only to discover that the downtown location which closed a few years ago was the last of its breed. There was Ron of Japan, but I needed the real deal. So I headed off to Lombard, 18 miles outside of Chicago, with my wife and my one year old son in tow.

Halfway into the journey, I started thinking how absurd this all was. Would this be the slippery slope whereby I go on a carbo-loading chain restaurant binge sucking down mozzarella sticks at TGI Fridays and chicken crispers at Chilis, until someone discovered my bloated salt-riddled body covered in the detritus of Moons Over My Hammy one late night in a Denny’s parking lot?

But, sidling in next to the warm flat-top felt like old times. Pretty soon, the kimono clad server arrived with a stack of plastic wrapped hot wet napkins (When did they get rid of the real cotton towels? Cheap bastards.) to cleanse our grubby urban paws. I ordered my old standby, the Splash ‘N Meadow featuring “Tender Bite-Sized Steak and Grilled Shrimp”, while my wife fittingly ordered Rocky’s Choice, steak and chicken.

While we waited, we were joined by two men and their young sons. As the men cheerfully greeted us, I realized that by promoting dining with strangers, Benihana was a pioneer in communal dining (take that Avec). Instead of sucking down bloated jalapeno poppers stuffed with cream cheese napalm in some anonymous vinyl-lined corner booth, we were forced to interact with our fellow humans.

Of course, these fellow humans turned out to be total cliches, talking on their cell phones throughout the meal, sucking down four Grey Goose and tonics and a couple more tequila rocks, while their sons scarfed down the equivalent in kiddie cocktails. These men called the waitresses “sweetheart” and the chef “buddy” and bossed them around like Bill Lumbergh lording over the cubicle dwellers at Initech. At one point, one of the men asked for “a side of that green stuff”, to which the “sweetheart” responded, “You mean wasabi? To which he said, “No the spicy stuff you get with sushi.”

But, it didn’t matter much, as I was too busy watching my 15 month old son dipping his chopsticks in to a pool of ginger salad dressing and sucking them clean.

I was also transfixed by our chef, whose nametag said “Duke”. Clearly with his holstered santoku blade, this was THE John Wayne of the flat-top. Duke turned out to be a six (out of ten) as Benihana chefs go, but he did unveil a double onion ring volcano (see pic below) and formed the pile of chicken fried rice into a heart shape, both techniques I’d never seen.

While watching him cook, I remembered that everything I’d ever known about making fried rice, I’d learned from Benihana. I have no idea how traditional Chinese fried rice is made. What I do know though is that searing your chicken chunks and loading up on butter, fresh lemon, sesame seeds, and soy makes fried rice taste awesome. That may make me an ignorant rice-cooking rube, but no one’s complained about my fried rice, ever.

You can actually learn a lot by watching a Benihana chef. Their knife technique is impeccable. They caramelize their meat and vegetables, they season and sauce properly, and they always cook to the right level of doneness. My meal that afternoon was very satisfying. Were I truly reviewing the experience, my only quibble would be that the super-lean strip loin which featured no marbling whatsoever was slightly chewy. But you get what you pay for. If I wasn’t so miserly, I could have forked over for the center-cut filet and lobster tail like my Grey Goose slurping neighbors did.

As I was leaving, I felt pretty good about myself until I saw a picture, of a younger George W. Bush wielding chopsticks at a Benihana, hanging over the lobby bar. But, I regained my composure, and realized that pic, along with all of the other celebrity glossies including Jean Claude Van Damme in a Hawaiian print kimono, re-affirmed my conclusion that Benihana was truly a cultural touchstone.

It may not be authentically Japanese, but it is a true American experience. Founded on West 56th St in Manhattan in 1964, it’s more American than apple pie (English and Dutch) or hot dogs (German). For me, it’s certainly been a place for life checkpoints, always filled with great people and relatively good food. And to that I can definitely raise a Sake Bomb.