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A friend of mine, let’s call him The Candidate, as he once stood for political office, had a significant birthday recently. You know the kind, one of those with a zero as the second digit, which convinces you to take stock of your life.
So The Candidate has always been rather retro. I don’t think he’s enjoyed a film released after 1989 or any music from at least a decade before that.
As such, I wanted him to enjoy a seventies style night out and, as I don’t have access to a time machine, I plumped for Benihana.
Benihana is the American-based chain of Japanese style hibachi grills, and no a hibachi grill is not something that you find at the front of a Japanese car. It’s the device upon which food is grilled (we’d probably say fried) at your table. The chain in the US is ubiquitous but in London they’re rarer beasts, we have three gracing the capital at various locations.
Benihana has for many years sold with the strap-line ‘dinner and a show.’ In this case the show is the one performed for you by the chef at your table, where all the chopping, and grilling is made into a spectacle for your enjoyment. In the US Benihana is apparently the go to choice for first dates as they provide something to look at, in case you don’t want to look at your date.
So one Friday, The Candidate and I plus a third guest arrived at the King’s Road branch in search of our retro evening. We weren’t to be disappointed, inside a staircase takes you down two flights and back about four decades to a dining room that reminds anyone over forty of the Japanese restaurant from the odour eaters advert.
The menu presents a bit of a paradox, food which is delightfully retro and the prices which seem positively avant-garde, perhaps even futuristic factoring in inflation which hasn’t happened yet.
Previous experience means I know just how much a night out here could cost. I had planned according and had paid in advance for two with a Wowcher.
All the hibachi meals come with a grilled (fried) prawn appetiser, dressed salad, soup, steamed rice and vegetables. The Benihana delight featured a main course of chicken and prawns, whilst I upgraded to a Rocky’s choice where the prawns became a sirloin steak.
As it was a significant birthday The Candidate supplemented his starter with some additional scallops, and both The Candidate and The Captain upgraded from steamed to fried rice. The wine list like the food is rather pricey, we went for a mid-range chardonnay, which whilst perfectly pleasant was overpriced at £31.
Once the orders were complete, we were introduced to a chef and showman, Jason, carrying his tray of delicacies whilst we were served soup. This was a clear fried onion and was pleasant if rather too salty.
Then the show began. Jason trimmed the prawns on the grill and then tossed the heads and tails into the disposal hole. Well actually that was the plan, but Jason, it must be said, kept missing, which I think was deliberate as it built up then tension until he finally managed to score.
One of the main parts of the performance involve a chopped onion which is then reassembled to look like a tiny volcano, then through the addition of various squirts of oil and water the onion first steams and then belches flame, our onion was so flammable that I worried for The Candidates hair.
Whilst this was going on the salad arrived. You can’t say much about the salad, other than the dressing tasted rather like a more solid version of the soup. As I consumed my salad Jason was busy working on the fried rice, which was as you’d imagine, rice plus egg, plus soy sauce. It did look rather more appealing though than the bland bowl of steamed rice that appeared near me whilst this was going on.
The main courses were cooked with less showmanship, although I appreciated being asked if I wanted to keep the fat from my steak. I did and it was cut from the meat and cooked more thoroughly and presented as a nice juicy titbit for me to enjoy. The food was lovely but suffers a little from the fact that it tastes rather like something you could produce at home, if you heated wok properly before use.
My steak and chicken tasted nice but was by no means outstanding or indeed particularly memorable. My companions’ verdict on their chicken and yet more prawns replicated my feelings. The décor and atmosphere are distinctly retro and the customer base on the night we dined seemed to be comprised of a mixture of work groups and tourists, neither of which would be that cost sensitive.
That’s my issue, the sheer cost of the place. Without the discount our bill would have come to £172, even with it worked out at around £140. It’s fun, it’s a guilty pleasure, but it has more in common with theme restaurants like the Rain Forest café and Bubba Gump shrimp than it would care to admit. They also run the tables like clockwork and you’ll be lucky for the experience to last more than about 90 minutes and so should plan to do something after.
I go every couple of years and I’m sure I’ll be back, but as always, I’ll shop around for ways to reduce the cost before I go. I write often about the theatre of dinner, and here there certainly is theatre, even if it is showing signs of ageing due to its long run, but perhaps there should be more emphasis on the dinner.
Anyway, after that we went to Trader Vic’s in the Hilton. If Benihana is the mid 70’s this was the mid 60’s, the Brandy Alexander was superb as an after-dinner drink and I recommend it to everyone. If only I’d stopped at one.
Till the next time.