Bangkok Post reviews
Seriously delicious Japanese fun
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: December 1, 2011 at 9:40 am
Radically re-tweaked Benihana bursts its former cuisine and beverage boundaries while polishing its 'eatertainment' performance
New brooms are sweeping clean all over Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa, formerly Marriott-managed. Top-to-bottom refurbishment works span everything from the rooms to the restaurants, all with a mission to reposition the leafiest of Bangkok hotels as a more rarefied experience.
Benihana, one of two international restaurant franchises at the resort, the other being Trader Vic's just across the corridor, is a prime case in point. Refreshed throughout in dramatic red and black with clean lines, lightning bolt lighting that echoes steel bamboo-evoking space dividers, minimalist sliding shoji screens, and underplayed authentic art, it's Zen meets cabaret in a way that perfectly presages the performances of its notorious juggling teppanyaki chefs.
But it's also much more than that. Among the original elements preserved is a glass encased meditation garden with Mt. Fuji-istic stones poignantly placed, indicating that less razzle-dazzle dining traditions are also firmly rooted.
Indeed, now more than ever, Benihana is the complete Japanese fine dining package. Recognising that the drama of performing chefs swirling spatulas like helicopter blades and dicing sizzling shrimp with percussive intensity tends to chime most strongly with the leisurely mood of weekends and evenings (though conference parties also dig it for lunch), the rethink includes, alongside some of the best surf 'n' turf money can buy on the hibachi griddle, more comprehensive and conspicuously creative sushi and sashimi menus than before.
The beverage side has also been turbo-charged with the restaurant coming into focus as a leading purveyor of fine and rare sake, shochu, umeshu, Japanese whisky, and innovative cocktail combinations thereof. Sake, of course, is brewed, from rice. Shochu is distilled from barley, sweet potatoes or rice. Umeshus constitute wines, notably the plum variety.
You can't miss this particular change because the evocative bottles, many encased in rustically-refined caligraphised bamboo jackets, are arrayed on floating glass shelves around a bedazzling crimson traditional Japanese dress framed as the work of art it certainly is.
Added to this is the excellently engineered extractor infrastructure that keeps the restaurant smoke free and smelling more of pine forests than barbecues, even when all teppanyaki tables are a-sizzle.
Another gash of colour is comprised of the decorative counter displaying immaculate imported and local sashimi selections.
Lest we forget, Benihana (Japanese for 'safflower') is the brainchild of wrestler, powerboat racer and all-round showman Rocky Aoki, who opened his first teppanyaki restaurant in New York in 1964. There are now 80 branches around the world that have served well over 100 million meals. In the spirit of its founder, entertainment is a key factor in the Benihana experience. On a busy night the chefs, battle to outdo each other with increasingly outrageous stunts, as food, implements and the occasional stuffed toy fly through the air.
Nevertheless, this restaurant's proud affiliation is somehow smoother and more chilled than before. Though the bulk of the business remains driven by the heavy iron griddles so adept at accentuating the intrinsic qualities of everything from luxurious lobsters plucked live from the tank to iced not frozen wagyu beef, the flavours and textures are the bigger draw and the theatrical manner in which they are diced and danced onto your plate more a side-show.
And so we start with the signature appetizer from the Raw section of the sushi and sake menu; Hirame Carpaccio (525), comprising flounder fish seared with extra virgin olive oil, topped with crispy toasted garlic, chopped serrano pepper and ginger, drizzled with white soy and finished with ponzu gelee. Flounder is a luxury product so the treatment needs to be special without overwhelming the delicate natural flavour. While the olive oil and soy deftly tease out the natural taste and texture of the melt-in-the-mouth flesh, hot serrano shavings and squishy-sour ponzu, the Japanese vinaigrette, contrast and complement.
As we are sharing, we accompany this with Toro Tartar (425); fatty tuna chopped with scallions and smelt roe atop crispy tortilla chips, with black flying fish roe, spicy mayo and tempura shallots. In other words, an essential ly Mediterranean dish adopted into Japanese cooking culture. With its crunch and succulence, this is comfort cuisine for all ages and origins.
We also order up a couple of the new range of sushis, one subtle and unabashedly upscale, the other packing more kick than a Thai boxer.
Samurai sashimi (450) comprises no less than Maine lobster tempura, California avocado, asparagus, and masago, encrusted with toasted almonds and drizzled with lemon pepper sauce. The flavour is sublime, but you have to close your eyes and inhale to really appreciate it.
Fireball (350), on the other hand, takes no prisoners with its spicy tuna tartar only slightly restrained by avocado and raw tuna and altogether exploded by strips of Thai Sriracha hot sauce and spicy mayo across the plate. Appropriately appearing like hot buttons that an errant president might press to start a nuclear war, these go off like flavour bombs and are an instant favourite.
On the sashimi side, Benihana has got everything from tuna to Red snapper, and snow crab to yellowtail, which at 800 baht is the priciest. There are also several temaki, futomaki and kabuiki options ideal for quick lunches and light dinners.
Comfortably ensconced in a shallow crescent of arm chairs pulled up to a red-brown granite counter, our master of so-called "eatertainment" ceremonies now arrives before us as if to start dealing blackjack. But instead of shuffling a deck, he's juggling shiny-sharp spatulas and knives. The trickery and teasing continues at intervals throughout preparation and serving of the meal but his chef's skills somehow remain paramount, as evidenced by the precision and poignancy of the successive servings.
Besides vegetables, everything is conveniently proportioned for individual mouthfulls which is not just for convenience but because each piece is seared all round, giving more richly-flavoured crust.
Sides of misu soup, made with deep-fried onion rings for extra depth, and seaweed, and Benihana's signature green salad with ginger dressing duly arrive and the griddle gets busy with some veggies - onion, zucchini, cabbage, carrot, asparagus - tossed in garlic butter and seasoned with toasted sesame seeds. Some shrimp is also quick fried with garlic butter, pepper and lemon and once the tails are removed (and in some cases flipped into the folds of chef's scarlet toque), we dunk alternately in ginger and sticky chilli sauces and consume with gusto.
For the main act, we choose two selections from the House Specialities section.
New-look Benihana—where Zen meets cabaret.
Kobe Konnexion (1,850) juxtaposes the famously succulent beef with plump US scallops and squishy shoots of white asparagus. These are fried separately before the beef is mounted on the scallops and then on a raft of asparagus. Once transferred to the plate this is doused in peppery butter sauce which blends all three elements together mangificently.
French Affair (1,750), which contrasts French foie gras with nori seaweed and black truffle sauce, also works brilliantly.
Next we choose a simple beef dish letting the teppanyaki grill do what it does best; accentuating inherent excellence. Our 8 oz serving of US certified Angus tenderloin "from the stock yards of Chicago" (1,900) is sizzled in soy sauce, sliced into 1" cubes, seared all round, and coated with sesame. When dunked into Benihana's signature mustard sauce, the BBQ smokiness is suffused with creaminess while the texture is that of toasted marshmallows. Perfection!
This was joined by Hibachi garlic rice (175) which itself is quite a performance. Having deftly cracked the eggs by dropping them on the edge of the spatula, chef makes an omelette, then scrambles it, adds garlic butter and rice and so on, finishing off in a heart shape which he proceeds to make beat.
We conclude with excellent homemade green tea ice cream (175).
There are big plans for Benihana once the impact of the floods - which despite its gorgeous riverside location did not directly impinge on the resort - are washed away entirely, including a free-flow sushi session and a return of Saturday brunches that were popular before the refurbishment.
Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa. 257/1-3 Charoennakorn Road, Thonburi, Bangkok. Tel. 02 476 0022.