When we told our children we were going out for dinner to Benihana of Tokyo, we met consumer resistance. "What's a Benihana?" our son, 9, wanted to know. "Why can't we have hamburgers?" asked our doughter, 11.
The grumbles stopped as soon as we arrived at the restaurant. Benihana's is in the rear of the Air Rights building in Bethesda. The entryway, on the main floor, is enchanting: a Japanese garden with a footbridge and waterfall. The entry leads to a flight of stairs down to the restaurant in the basement.
The restaurant is dimly lit but nicely and simply decorated with Japanese screens and large wooden tables. All tables are for eight. Two people sit at one end of the table, four along the side, and two at the other end. The chef commands the fourth side. He cooks the food to order on the hot cooking surface in the center of the table. From our children's point of view, it was dinner with a floor show.
Our chef was part cook, part clown. He was dressed in white pants and shirt with a loose leather belt for his knives. On his head he had a huge, high orange chef's hat. He was only too happy to play up to the children. He banged his wooden salt and papper shakers as though they were drums. He twirled his knives and used his spatula to hurl mushrooms from the frying pan onto their plates. It was quite a show and our children loved every minute of it. Our son, who hates vegetables, so forget himself that he actually tasted the zuchini, bean sprouts and mushrooms as they landed on his plate.
Before we left for Benihana, I called ahead to check prices. We thought the restaurant might be too expensive for us, and we were only partially reassured when the maitre d' said dinners ranged from $6.95 to $13.50. There were no children's portions, but children could share an entree, he said.
Although there were several dinners listed on the menu, there are really two main courses: chicken, at $6.95 for the dinner, or steak, at $8 to $8.95, depending on the cut and thickness of the steak. The dinner includes soup, salad, shrimp appetizer, Hibachi vegetables (onions, zuchini, mushrooms, bean sproutss), rice and tea. The menu also lists two entrees: minute steak for $5.95 and Hibachi shrimp for $5.50. There also was a Turf and Surf, lobster and steak dinner for $13.50.
We advised our children to choose between the entrees. My husband and I ordered dinners, planning to share two soups, salads and shrimp appetizers four ways. The children opted for minute steak which turned out to look and taste exactly like the Sukiyaki steak I ordered. My husband ordered the Hibachi steak which was a thicker cut of meat.
We waited about 10 minutes after we placed our order with the waitress, but once the food started to come, it came in a rush. The onion soup was fairly bland and my husband and I were happy to let the children have the soups. They loved it, spooning up every drop.The salads arrived before the soup was finished. They were ample enough to share four ways. While we were eating our salads, the chef arrived to do his number.
First he set up eight little bowls and told us he was pouring mustard sauce into four of them, ginger sauce into four of them. He placed one of each in front of each of us.
Next he threw neatly cut onion and zuchini slices onto the hot grill. He followed these with a handful of shrimp which he deftly cut and cubed with his sharp knives. He added a shake of seasoning and popped the shrimp onto our plates. As soon as the shrimp were cooked, he asked how we wanted our steak cooked. We found we didn't have to order down - that is, we didn't have to ask for rare if we wanted medium rare. The meat was well seasoned and delicious. As it cooked, the chef cut it into bite sized pieces. Everyone finished off all their meat, most of their vegetables and rice.
We declined dessert - ice cream or sherbet. When the bill came ti was $28.85 for the food, $2.50 for white wine and one Kirin beer.
Benihana of Tokyo, 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda; 652-5391. Open 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner.Credit cards accepted. Not accessible to those in wheelchairs because of long staircase at entrance to restaurant.