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On the Menu: Pushing the envelope on Pan-Asian cuisine

Benihana's specialty restaurants serve as a testing ground for additions to its core concepts

Benihana's boutique concepts are known for their sushi, which now appears in many of the core restaurants as well. - Benihana
Joan M. Lang
March 01, 2005

Benihana is a company with a split personality. On the one hand, there’s the familiar, 40-year-old Beni­hana teppanyaki brand, beloved by mainstream American diners in more than two-dozen states (not to mention seven other countries). On the other hand, parent company Benihana Inc. also operates a clutch of cutting-edge Japanese restaurants as part of its “boutique” restaurant division.

Known for creative Pan-Asian fusion cuisine and high-quality sushi, these specialty restaurants, which include five Haru sushi restaurants, eight RA Sushi Bars and the one-of-a-kind Doraku in Miami Beach, serve a number of different strategic purposes for the company. In addition to extending founder Rocky Aoki’s reach into the hearts and minds of American diners, they serve to push the envelope on Japanese cuisine while simultaneously serving as a testing ground for future Benihana menu and service concepts.

“The company’s vision is to enrich our customers’ lives with a better understanding of Japanese culture,” says Kevin Aoki, Benihana’s vice president of marketing. “The boutique restaurants help us do that. They also give us a way to experiment more freely, without compromising the Benihana brand.”

With 56 of its eponymous teppanyaki restaurants in operation in the United States, Benihana has introduced a generation of American diners to approachable, easy-to-like Japa­nese-style food, cooked on a hibachi grill in full view of the customer.

The menu, which is offered as a complete meal, including Japanese onion soup, salad, hibachi shrimp appetizer, vegetables and hibachi-fried rice, showcases such traditional favorites as Yakisoba (sautéed Japanese noodles); Hibachi Steak, Chicken, Shrimp or Scallops; and Seafood Diablo (spicy udon noodles with shrimp, scallops, calamari and assorted vegetables).

There are also a number of combination items and newer specialties, including Hibachi Cha­teau­briand with garlic butter, and Fish Tsutsumi-Yaki (salmon and hibachi vegetables wrapped and cooked on the grill).

The formula appeals to young families in its traditional suburban markets, and Benihana executives have no intention of fooling with that. But American diners are fast becoming more sophisticated, especially when it comes to Asian food.

“There are now so many Asian influences in the marketplace,” notes Aoki, “from Japanese toys [like Pokemon] to sushi bars in supermarkets. As a restaurant company, we want to stay on top of that momentum.

“Today’s customers want authentic Japanese cuisine that’s also relevant to Western tastes,” he adds. “And that’s what we’re doing with the boutique restaurants.”

Doraku, the newest in the Benihana fold, is a case in point. Opened in 2001 and presided over by Japanese-trained Executive Chef Hiro Terada, Doraku boasts a wide-ranging menu of traditional and new-wave sushi, as well as a variety of pan-Asian appetizers, salads and entrées, presented in an ultramodern, high-concept environment. An extensive selection of sakes headlines the full wine list, and there is also a destination-worthy bar with specialty cocktails, live music and Japanese animation on full-size screens.

“Like all of our specialty restaurants, it’s designed to appeal to a young, hip, urban clientele,” says Aoki.

About 50 percent of Doraku’s sales are represented by the sushi bar, including traditional rolls and nigiri sushi, as well as signature items like the Crunchy Crab Roll and the Doraku Roll (lobster, kanikama crab stick and cream cheese, tempura-fried and served with red and black caviar, scallion and spicy cream sauce). There is also a nightly market-priced Chef’s Choice Omakase Sashimi selection, which allows customers to sample slices of the freshest fish of the day.

But Doraku is not a sushi restaurant.

“This is a fusion-style menu,” explains Hiro Terada, the restaurant’s chef. “We have a number of cooked foods that combine Western ingredients with Asian flavorings, like grilled Cornish game hen marinated in ginger, garlic and soy, and Chilean sea bass with yuzu miso sauce.”

Doraku’s menu is heavily focused on seafood. Cold appetizers include Ahi Poke (fresh tuna and sea kelp marinated in Hawaiian pepper sauce), Salmon Tartar in jalapeño sauce, and various fish and shellfish ceviches and carpaccio. Hot appetizers include Crispy Calamari with olora curry sauce, mussels steamed with sake and sweet yuzu miso sauce, and tempura-battered softshell crab, rock shrimp, lobster and tiger shrimp. There are also a number of seafood salads.

Among entrées, there are salmon, ahi, red snapper, whole halibut and Maine lobster, all of it simply grilled and served with various Asian-accented sauces, such as garlic ponzu and sake teriyaki glaze.

The menu concepts at Haru and RA Sushi Bar follow similar pathways, emphasizing Japanese fusion-style entrées and appetizers (such as Haru’s Lobster Miso Soup with cellophane noodles, edamame and cilantro, and RA’s Apple Teriyaki Salmon, topped with sautéed Fuji apple glaze and served with wasabi mashed potatoes).

To date, there are five Haru locations in New York City, with a sixth on the way in Manhattan and No. 7 slated for Philadelphia later this year. RA, meanwhile, comprises five units in Arizona and one each in San Diego, Las Vegas and Chicago.

These envelope-pushing signature items do more than attract a sophisticated, urban clientele, says Aoki. They’re also grist for the Benihana mill. “We want to be able to experiment with different things and surprise our core customers with new items,” he says.

Like sushi. Most Benihana locations now offer some type of sushi, and 41 of them have a full-service sushi bar.

Aoki sees great potential for seafood of all types on Benihana’s menu.

“Japanese-style seafood is so healthy and relevant to what American diners want,” he explains. New fish and shellfish-based menu items and daily sea­food specials are a distinct possibility.

“Americans tend to eat salmon and tuna, but I can see bringing in snapper and other less well-known species, as long as we know our customers want it.”

March 2012 - SeaFood Business

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