A friend of mine gets a peculiar Benihana craving about once a year or so — “peculiar,” because she can’t stand the “Benihana smell,” which so thoroughly impregnates her clothes that even laundering doesn’t entirely remove it. But she enjoys the theater of hibachi cooks preparing dinner before your eyes, even though the act is entirely predictable.
So at her suggestion we visited Benihana earlier this week. To an extent, the theatricality of it is still fun, even though we all know what’s coming. Our chef did all of the usual tricks, like making a volcano out of a sliced onion, performing acrobatic catches with shrimp tails hurled in the air, and spinning his knives as if he were a samauri.
The food wasn’t particularly impressive. Perhaps the best item was fried rice prepared tableside. Grilled shrimp were also enjoyable, but steak was rather dry and flavorless. A salad tasted like it was mass-produced, and left sitting in the fridge for a while. A frazzled server took a while to deliver our drink orders, and throughout the meal we had the slight sensation of being rushed. At Benihana, all parties are seated at tables of eight. If a couple of people are left lingering, the whole table is unavailable, so they want you out of there on a pre-programmed schedule. It was not particularly busy on a Monday night, but the requirement of seating people in batches of eight must be a constant constraint for them.
For the amount of food, prices are reasonable, with most entrées in the $20–30 range, which includes soup, salad and dessert. A gin and tonic, which came with a liberal amount of gin, was only $5.50. As my friend noted, Benihana is surely the place to come and get plastered, as most Manhattan restaurants nowadays charge over $10 for a mixed drink (and $15 is certainly not unheard of). If you double-up on the G&T’s, perhaps you’ll overlook the fact that the food is just mediocre. The faux-Japanese décor gets you in the mood. While you’re waiting to be seated, see how many celebrities you can identify in the photos posted in the vestibule.
Benihana (47 W 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)
Food: Comme-ci, comme-ça
Service: Ah, so-so
Ambiance: Almost like Japan