Benihana is housed in the elegant grand dame of Toronto hotels, The Fairmont Royal York. As one of the first Japanese restaurants in Toronto to offer the teppanyaki dining experience, Benihana is still pulling in crowds and wowing them.
Classic Japanese decor calms at first. The walls wear kimonos as art and both the intimate cocktail bar and the sushi bar beckon me to opt for sushi before heading straight for the teppanyaki tables.
Chef Toshi, a twenty-year vet of Benihana, tells me he'
s from Okinawa, Japan. While masterfully creating a Dragon Roll ($15) for me, I hear the story of his training in Tokyo. Simultaneously, Gary, the bartender, mixes me one of his special house cocktails, the Saketini, which combines, as its name would suggest, sake along with Absolut vodka and cranberry juice. The drinks list also features a full page of sakes to choose from.
The Dragon Roll is then placed before me. The colour and flavour of the cocktail provides a great contrast to the cleverly made Maki Sushi - amusingly arranged to resemble a dragon. Two wasabi eyeballs with red fish roe stare up at me. Shrimp tempura juts out like a couple of ears and the slices of overlapping avocado resemble a warrior's suit of armour. Toshi uses the shrimp tempura inside the roll as well and the rice is still slightly warm, signaling just how fresh this is. It's as beautiful to look at as it is to eat and the sly humour of the dish is something I love as well.
This witty approach continues into the Teppanyaki room, where manager Chris Chen leads me next. I'm seated front row center, facing Chef Sam. I notice that, although the others at my communal table are all women, other tables have groups of business people and families.
The teppanyaki menu features a good selection, from vegetarian options to surf 'n turf. Donna, my server, recommends that I sample the best of both worlds with the steak/lobster combo ($59).
Heads turn as our chef begins the "show" that is the beauty of teppanyaki dining. First, the lobster tails are deftly flipped and the meat removed from the shell. Sam instructs us to take the lobster, with some rice, and eat it out of the lobster shell with our chopsticks so we can pick up every last vestige of flavour. The sizzling act continues with the knife-work. Toshi mentioned earlier that it takes at least six months of practice with the knives before a chef can do the "show." Chef Sam gives a final flourish of the knife, along with a few jokes, and the vegetables, followed by the 8oz striploin, are suddenly cut into perfectly thin slices and sit on my plate. He's so fast that I barely even see him cut them.
The meals all include a soup and salad, and so by my fourth course I am really feeling full. Everyone at our table groans, unable to finish their meals; many guests will probably end up departing with the signature Benihana bag in tow.
To complete my dining experience, I have a small green tea ice cream topped with plump raspberries and, of course, a cute little parasol. My Japanese dining ritual is complete.