The Benihana concept is fun, right? A large, community table where you can sit with people from all walks of life and enjoy a fantastic meal prepared by a skilled, entertaining chef right in front of you? Count me in!
Except for the sitting by other people part. Count me out.
Mark and I (the aforementioned SO) eat out much too often, and Benihana’s works itself into our diets probably more than it should. We always have an amazing time, but our Benihana trips are infamous — INFAMOUS — for being marred by some form of irritating personality at our table.
It’s probably our fault, because we always have such stupidly high expectations of meeting our new best friends or something, and we also make it a point to eat at a Benihana every time we’re on vacation in a new city. For example: San Antonio Benihana is not ever recommended because of the poor service and stripper customers. Orlando Benihana is very much recommended because we had our own personal chef who was awesome, and probably the best friend-type we were looking for.
But usually, we end up sitting with the Boys and Girls Club of America who dislike imbibing in conversation, adult beverages, and society, for that matter. (No offense to the actual BGCA intended.) Sometimes we get the loud-mouth out-of-towners who secretly, or quite openly, take pictures of the two of us with their camera phones. Weird. Then there’s the couples who fight with each other, the guy who shouts about jager bombs with a baby in his lap, the girl who pitches a fit because Tuaca is not served here, and the prim, quiet families who just pick at their plates, looking miserable in wool.
Like I said, we always have unappealing tablemates, but whether they’re bland or just crazy, we manage to have a great, fun experience. But last night’s visit took the cake — in fact, it took the whole hibachi grill.
We’re the first ones seated at our table. I’m leafing through the menu like an amateur because I want something a little different. I usually stick with some combination of shrimp, scallops, and/or filet unless I’m getting sushi. I had the lobster once and was not impressed; the grill is obviously way too intense for a shellfish this delicate, and it came out overcooked and missing most of the buttery sweetness that makes lobster lobster. It honestly tasted closer to shrimp; I’ll be sticking to steamed from now on.
So I decided on the seafood diablo dish, which is “seafoods and vegetables with Japanese udon noodles and a spicy sauce.” Sounds delish, and it was. Shrimp, the always flawless scallops, and calamari, which I’ve somehow managed to never have grilled; after last night, I don’t know if I can go back to fried and dunked in marinara sauce. The flavor was just so… ah, everything you can think of. It was distinctive yet subtle, sweet yet savory, and even though it looked exactly like an udon noodle, the distinctive texture was a reminder that you were eating a delicious sea creature. The flavor just jumped out at you, well over everything else going on in your mouth. Phenomenal. The noodles were tasty as well. They’re not my favorite because they’re rather thick and can be gummy and even a little slimy, but in the hands of my hibachi chef, they were mellow and complimented the sauce well. And the secret sauce: Even though the color was off, it was obviously a simple sriracha-based sauce, which is fine with me. I got the heat I was looking for and all the ingredients were very well-balanced. It’s definitely not your typical hibachi fare but it hit the spot and I’d recommend it to those in the mood for a real dish.
But from the very beginning, it was obvious that the soon-to-be-sitting-next-to-me whack-job was going to ruin everything. So let me paint this picture: we’ve just been seated at the table when a nice-looking, well-dressed couple, probably in their late 20’s, are seated across from us. They look normal and we breathe a sigh of relief, but they’re too far away to really interact with.
You know who is not too far away to interact with? This next lady.
An older woman wearing a jacket, scarf, sunglasses, and floppy hat sits next to us and is joined by her husband shortly. Her first order of business is to complain about the temperature, which is fine, because we were sitting under a vent and it was a little chilly. Then I get lambasted with this deadly, disapproving glare when the waitress sits my Kirin Ichiban down in front of me. Whatever, I was raised by teetotalers. I am immune to that look. Then she sends her glass of water back an alarming 3 TIMES because it was not room-temperature enough. At this point, Mark and I are actively playing the part of the bland and are absorbed in our soups and salads because this lady is very openly a nut job and we don’t want any part of that.
Then, she and her husband berate the chef for only working there for a year and being a “rookie.” I’m close to snapping, and I inform them that not only is their training a grueling six months, but we’ve actually had this chef before, and he’s pretty damn great. Then, she instructs the chef where to place her lobster on the grill; she disapproves of his putting it in the middle and insists that he move it to the far right side, because she doesn’t want too much oil on it. Then when she notices that the very nice-looking, very normal couple on the other end of the table have only ordered shrimp fried rice and nothing else, she proceeds to serve them the most condescending piece of hell I have ever witnessed.
When she begins her badgering, the nice people, we’ll call them The Normals, smile and laugh and say we come here every Friday, we just wanted a light dinner, we like the ambiance, etc… Every word they uttered was as nice and normal as could be and did not even begin to venture into It’s None of Your Business territory, which would have been appropriate. But Floppy Hat insisted on continuing her tasteless verbal assault.
“I feel so bad,” she intones. “But there’s nothing on your plate,” she whines. “DO YOU WANT SOME OF OUR FOOD?”
I thought I was going to hurl. It was the single most disgusting, embarrassing, flat out rude exchange I’ve seen in a long, long time. In most circumstances, I’d like to think that I would stick my nose in there and say something. However, at a dinner? Where the whole point is to forge a sense of community with people of different cultures, generations, nationalities? I didn’t want to compound the awkwardness, and I still had a dinner to finish, so I said nothing and watched the Normals handle the situation with grace, dignity, and kindness. They did fine on their own, but I still wonder if I should have spoken up. At least it would have made me feel better.
Needless to say, the Normals bailed out of there pretty quickly, and Mark and I followed shortly after wolfing down our dinners and skipping the meal-ending green tea and ice cream (still a little sad about that). We’d both had enough, and when we stood up to leave with our two to-go boxes, Floppy Hat’s husband informed us that there were take-out bags in the front. Argh, what a rampage these two were on!
We high-tailed it out of there and capped off the night with, well, a nightcap, at Pub Fiction. Neither of us have been there in years; we’d shaken the psuedo-trendy midtown scene quite a long time ago, but it was kind of nice there. It was only about 9 o’clock so there was no half-hour line to wait in and the place was low-lit, well-air conditioned, had great TVs, and the bartender had some sort of Eastern-European accent. Just how we like it, so the night was saved after all. I only hope the Normals can say the same.