Friday, March 4, 2011

Benihana Birthday

This is my little brother. Universally lauded as the coolest kid ever, Louis turned 11 on February 21st. Such a milestone was celebrated at one of his favorite restaurants,  a title earned by their pyrotechnics and food-as-entertainment schtick -- the one and only, Benihana. Last year, I had not yet fully come to appreciate Japanese cuisine as I do now (more sushi please), so I was looking forward to trying something brand new.

Open since 1964, Benihana is known as a "dinner show", a Japanese hibachi steakhouse with food served "teppanyaki" style. In the restaurant's own words, teppanyaki is "characterized by an intricate combination of presentation and knife skills... teppanyaki cooking has developed into a highly refined and beautiful form of expression." This means that my little brother watches, delighted, as our chef wields his knives with quick precision, flips tiny shrimp tails up into his chef's hat, and induces a volcanic eruption from a stack of onion slices on the grill. All in all, they put on indeed a great performance.

But what about the food? With the option of different steaks, chicken, seafood and vegetables for the teppanyaki, as well as a sushi menu, I spent a bit of time deliberating over my order with my stepmother, Wanda. At our end of the grill and table, we were struck by  the seafood  choices and resolved to share our dishes with each other in order to have the best of both worlds. I also opted for a spicy tuna roll, my current obsession and addiction. (Seriously... at least 3x a week for lunch. Damn you, Co-op right next to my work!)

Each entree comes with onion soup, a side salad, shrimp appetizer, hibachi vegetables, and hot green tea. This obviously means that above all, you must pace yourself. Our fried rice was prepared and chopped on the grill as our chef Luis cracked eggs over with flourish. In true Benihana tradition, he spelled out "I heart you" with the rice, one of Louis' ultimate moments in the dining experience. Our shrimp was grilled in the same fashion, smoking with spices and served piping hot. Both savory appetizers were delectable and rich, in small bowls so we could save room for the upcoming entrees.

The spicy tuna roll was one of the best I've tried so far. Though I no longer despise the taste and texture of seaweed, I prefer my sushi without double layers of it. The spicy sauce and cucumber crunched together with the soft tuna, and the rice flecked with sesame seeds added extra flavor. As you might have guessed, it was gone in minutes. Wanda ordered the Hibachi Tuna steak, seared and sesame-crusted slices served with tomato, avocado and edamame in a white balsamic reduction. This tangy dish was fresh and light, and perfectly pink. It was tempting to fill up on bites of that, but soon came my pick: Seafood Diablo.

Japanese udon noodles adorned with sea scallops, calamari, shrimp and vegetables simmered in Benihana's secret spicy sauce was a zesty masterpiece. The seafood wasn't too chewy, not undercooked, but tender and succulent. I went to town on those noodles, slurping them up like no one was watching.  After some white wine, soup, salad, fried rice, shrimp, sushi, tuna, and the Seafood Diablo, I was ready to burst! 

But we weren't finished yet. Wanda hails from New Orleans, and on birthdays she and Louis celebrate with a king's cake. A tradition brought over from France and Spain, king's cake is usually affiliated with Carnevale and Mardi Gras. A twisted brioche cake topped with purple, green and gold sugar icing, king's cake usually has a secret trinket inside -- a plastic baby, originally representing the baby Jesus. Nowadays, the baby doesn't have to be religious, but whomever finds the baby in the cake is king for the day! Somehow, Louis seems to always win on his birthday, which is just fine by me.

All in all, a pretty fantastic evening. Watching Louis transfixed by the slicing and dicing of our chef was pretty damn adorable, and I went home stuffed and immeasurably satisfied. Definitely fun for kids, birthdays, and parties, Benihana is worth the show.
1447 4th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
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