Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy Japanese

There was a time in Key West, when greed and concupiscence ruled over common sense, when Benihana closed to accommodate the landlord's greed. The bubble burst, the land wasn't sold and miraculously the chain Japanese restaurant re-opened. This is I believe the red safflower symbol that gives the Doral-based chain it's name:It flourishes today in a space that to my mind warps the time/space continuum. Enter Benihana and you have slipped out of the Florida Keys and have stepped back into 1950s Cleveland or some such place. This chain that has outlets around the world was apparently started in 1964 in New York city and now earns it's bosses three hundred million dollars a year. Cheyenne is statistically speaking, an anomaly as she takes her own chow with her when she plans to be away from home during dinner hour.
Key West has it's own traditional Japanese restaurants but for some reason this is one of the chains that has proved to be durable in this town. Taco Bell closed recently much to the distress of some people (not me) and there is only one Burger King left in the city after the downtown store closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by a chain surf(!) shop. Friends took me to Benihana for the first time after it re-opened and I was mildly amused by the schtick but I am not of the type that enjoys dinner as theater. I look at my hands and wonder how they train the chefs to fling their knives around so gracefully. In this instance, Robert, the master of the freebie figured out that if he made a reservation far enough in advance Benihana, like Denny's gives you free grub on your birthday. An opportunity not to be missed.We were party of five so we waited briefly top be seated and I had the rare chance to observe the regular Benihana customers in their element. We shared the table with three others, from Pennsylvania I believe, and they showed me how one interacts with the chef as he spins knives and chops food on the heated slab ("teppanyaki table") in front of you. Our master comedian was Jose from Puerto barrios in Guatemala, a journeyman chef who played to his Pennsylvania audience like a master. The idea at Benihana is to enjoy a touch of theater with the ingredients which are brought to the grill already chopped. Everything is carefully measured out and all ingredients for each dish are prepared before they arrive. The chef throws them on the grill in the correct order, swirls them around and serves them up With banter. Robert is about as good with banter as am I, Dolly his wife, watched the knife:
The menu offers assorted chicken and steak and scallops and lobster in various combinations. Most cost between 20 and 45 dollars a dish though Benihana advertises, rather crassly that complete dinner start at $15.50. I took them up on that and tried the tofu dish and it was good, my wife giggled that I probably got the most fat of all of us in the crusty wrapper then tofu came in. It was also easy to pick up with chop sticks. Plus it came first, I suspect as a way to avoid contaminating a vegetarian meal with meat on the same grill.
They also brought me all the green tea I could drink and I drink a lot of tea so I enjoyed the constant ebb and flow of teapots, and kept mine hot on the grill. And like I said I was spared the banter as the trip from Pennsylvania took up the slack.He was a salesman so he started out well by asking us where we are from and the fact that we were locals didn't faze him. He offered us a low cost pharmaceutical card and gauging our ability and willingness to play his game turned the brilliant smile on Jose who played along gamely. The wife brayed like a donkey as she sucked up the plonk and the daughter got more fluent in Spanish, she thought, as she sank the pink zinfandel. It was a complete Benihana experience, except that no one stuck chopsticks up their nostrils which I am told is common practice among Benihana cognoscenti.
The portions are American sized, not Japanese so as a matter of course a busboy comes out with the dreaded Styrofoam (non recyclable!) and my wife took home chunks of her excellent tuna steak. I really liked my tofu and figured it would not do as well reheated so I woofed it.We five were at Benihana for what was for us an unusual "dining experience" but the other three apparently make a habit of it. My wife said (I wasn't paying attention) they rent a room at the Galleon resort for a month and I did hear him say he's been coming back every year to Key West for 23 years, a creature of habit it seems, and Benihana draws them in far more than say one of Key West's homegrown places to eat. Perhaps the fact that making a sale at dinner is frowned upon, would be enough to put him off the other establishments.It was a cold night by Key West standards but we repaired to a local joint for what my wife promised would be the best chocolate cake ever. She was right, we had a table to ourselves and we talked our backsides off late into the night.I would never have imagined having dinner with Robert and Dolly in this place, and it is a unique memory I shall add to all the others I have accumulated over the years. You have to try Benihana once if you never have. You may not have the pleasure of stepping out into Key West afterward, but watching the knives fly is priceless.