Benihana in Piccadilly
Experience is everything; for restaurants at every level, the importance of putting a smile on customers’ faces has never been higher on the agenda. True, the kind of experience offered at the Fat Duck or Eleven Madison Park might be a world away from what diners can expect in their neighbourhood restaurant, but the principle is the same: make customers happy, give them something to remember.
Benihana have certainly got the memo. Service is unfailingly friendly but never intrusive, something many compulsive glass-fillers in the waiting industry could learn from. Communal tables further the relaxed atmosphere, and many diners are comfortable enough to be mingling with their fellow diners before the food has even arrived. Talking to strangers is an alien concept to many in London, but here a clever combination of service and setup ensures that it doesn’t just feel easy, it feels natural.
As for making things memorable, the use of a teppan is certainly a novelty for most. These huge open griddles form the centrepiece of every dining area, with individual parties grouped around, watching the chefs at work. The sizzle and steam of frying meat is strangely mesmerising, and short preparation times ensure that customers don’t spend too long staring longingly at their dinner.
Cold dishes arrive first to bridge the gap between the chef arriving at diners’ tables and food hitting the plate. Onion Soup is more French than Japanese, but makes a light start to the meal. Salmon and Tuna Sushi consists of two thick strips of fish still full of flavour and lustre. A tangle of pickled ginger and wasabi accompany them, adding a necessary burst of intensity. A generously sized portion of Prawn Appetiser arrives, complete with rice and vegetables also cooked on the hibachi. Everything has a gentle sear to it, tying together what would otherwise be a relatively disparate set of small plates.
A small avalanche of meat dishes follow, one after another. Cod with Miso Sauce falls apart in soft flakes beneath the slightest touch of the chopsticks. The honeyed sauce of Teriyaki Chicken highlights the meat’s innate sweetness without ever leaning towards being cloying – a pitfall all too common in the dish. Filet Mignon is tender and bursting with taste. Every dish is full of clean, simple flavours that get a little boost from the Japanese mustard and ginger sauces that accompany them. This is solid teppanyaki fare, cooked with skill and a minimum of fuss, just as it should be. We finish with cones of Tempura Filled with Vanilla Ice Cream – indulgent creaminess perfectly complemented by the light crispiness of the batter.
In general, the prices and ingredients here are tailored to fit the restaurant’s philosophy of delicious but accessible dining. For those looking for something a bit more special though, there is one dish nestled away in the menu that is sure to blow diners away. One of the world’s most coveted ingredients, the beautifully marbled wagyu beef, is cooked here by a chef with long experience of handling this beautiful breed of cow, and it shows. The rib eye is sliced and fried swiftly on the hibachi, served to diners with no additional frills, bar a small bowl of Japanese mustard sauce. For those that love the fattier cuts of steak, this is about as close to perfection as it comes. Were this chocolate, wine or coffee, we’d be raving about the thickness of the mouthful, the exquisite nature that silky fat brings to an already brilliant cut of meat. The acorn sweet fat of iberian pork is probably the closest Western analogue, or the joy of warm foie gras: it’s that good.
It’s hard to find fault in anything here. A salad is somewhat average – the dreaded iceberg lettuce and tomato blend – but even that is saved with lively spikes of ginger. They could be a little more adventurous with the flavours, but their simplicity does well to cater to all palates. When it comes down to it, the ultimate aim here is to provide a brilliant blend of affordability, flavour and atmosphere, and Benihana succeeds on all counts.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
To book a table at Benihana Piccadilly, 37 Sackville Street, W1S 3EH, call 020 7494 2525 or visit here.