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Beyond Benihana

Dinner and a show: Tokyohana's teppanyaki cooking not only provides entertainment, but it cuts down on the operational expenses
Deron Neblett

That's eatertainment: Second of a two-part series

A young man in chef's whites and an apron arrived at our teppanyaki table carrying a tray of beef, shrimp and vegetables.

"Are you our chef?" I asked.

"No, I just like to dress funny," he said, imitating Don Rickles. And so the performance began. He cracked a few one-liners and, with a squeeze bottle of cooking oil, drew an arrow pointing at my date. Then he lit the arrow on fire.

"Whoa," he hollered.

"I know -- I'm hot," she said, getting into the act.

He proceeded to rap the spatula on the metal griddle and spin the utensil in the air; he then picked up a knife and chopped the vegetables and meat with theatrical flourishes. We were splitting an "Earth and Sea," a sirloin steak-and-shrimp combo cooked with onions and squash and served with a side of rice. After trimming and chopping the steak and shrimp, the chef separated the onion into concentric rings and neatly stacked them on top of each other in a tower. Then he squirted oil into the middle and lit it on fire -- it looked like a volcano.

"Mount Tokyohana," he said taking a bow.

If you're in the mood for an intimate tête-à-tête, Tokyohana is not the restaurant you're looking for. Nor is it the place to go for Asian cuisine -- or great food in general. The "Earth and Sea" is as filling as the name implies, but it's wholly unremarkable. Yet if you're looking for some entertainment with your meal, you're in the right spot. There are ten tables here, each with a large griddle in the middle (called a teppanyaki or a hibachi in Japanese) and eight chairs in a semicircle around the cooking surface. Not only are the chefs adept with spatulas and knives, they're also pretty good stand-up comics. On weekends the restaurant features live jazz. (See "Tex-Jap Jazz," by Roger Wood, May 10.)

"Eatertainment," the interactive dining concept pioneered by Benihana, seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance lately. Rocky Aoki, who founded Benihana 37 years ago, popularized the corny term to describe the flamboyant performances by his Japanese chefs who chopped meat with lightning precision, juggled pepper mills, and flipped food in the air for the entertainment of guests.

The original eatertainer, Hiroaki Aoki was born in Japan, the son of an entertainer-turned-restaurant owner. After he moved to New York, Aoki changed his name to suit American tongues and attended the School of Restaurant Management at City College to learn about American tastes. "I spent three years making a systematic analysis of the U.S. restaurant market," he told an interviewer in a business school case study. "What I discovered is that Americans enjoy eating in exotic surroundings but are deeply mistrustful of exotic foods. Also I learned that people very much enjoy watching their food being prepared."

With a minimum of capital, Aoki opened the first Benihana on New York's Upper West Side in 1964. Six months after it opened, the place nearly failed. But an enthusiastic review from legendary New York restaurant reviewer Clementine Paddleford drew crowds of curious New Yorkers. And Aoki was poised to take advantage of the traffic.

Business students admired the utility of Aoki's concept. Labor costs were low, as there were no waiters. Diners shared communal tables where they could be (in business parlance) "batch-processed" by a single chef. With no kitchen, the entire restaurant was productive dining space. The high-profit formula was repeated in several more locations.

Benihana meticulously re-created Japanese architecture in each restaurant, even importing carpenters from the island nation. But there was never anything Japanese about the food. "By reducing my menu to only three simple 'Middle American' entrées -- steak, chicken and shrimp -- I have virtually no waste," Aoki told the business school. The chain now has 70 restaurants worldwide.

With the comedy bits and the jazz, Tokyohana has taken Benihana's eatertainment concept a step further. The restaurant also has added a sushi bar. But its teppanyaki dishes adhere closely to Aoki's limited ingredient list. The menu includes mostly chicken, shrimp and steak dishes with squash, onions, mushrooms and sprouts -- each seasoned with little more than salt and pepper. There's an item on Tokyohana's menu that features fillet and scallops. It's called the "Tex-Jap" special, a moniker that irritates some Houston Asians. "It's meant in the same innocent way as Tex-Mex," says general manager Jay Dickson. He adds that "Tex-Jap" is a good description of the cooking at Tokyohana. "It's Japanese food, Texas-style," he says. The Texas part is the beef and the large portions; the Japanese part is the teppanyaki-style cooking. According to Dickson, this is the kind of Asian food that Houston Anglos are most comfortable with.

"But Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation," I argue. "Don't you think our tastes have changed?"

"I have lived in Houston all my life, and I think that more than almost anywhere else, Houston is hesitant to change," says Dickson. "Houston tastes are the same as they always were, and if you don't believe me, turn on the radio. It's the same music we listened to in high school."

The interior at Tokyohana is vaguely similar to Benihana's, but with a few tongue-in-cheek twists, like a goofy fountain with fake turtles. The real difference between Tokyohana and Benihana, says Dickson, is the attitude. "Our chefs are younger and hipper, and our atmosphere is more festive," he says. Tokyohana is also much less Japanese. The chefs here are white, black and Latino. Owners Harold and Akin Soo are Malaysian. The only employee with a Japanese background is a hostess. But clinging to Japanese traditions, culinary or otherwise, was never the idea at either restaurant.

An unscientific survey of Tokyohana's clientele helps clarify Dickson's comments. It's true that a large percentage of people at Tokyohana don't seem interested in exotic Asian food. It's also true that many of them are too young to drive. On our first visit, a bunch of nine-year-olds had taken over the place with an animated birthday party. The clanging spatulas, flying pepper mills and flaming onion rings mesmerize the youngsters. And parents who usually have to admonish their fidgeting offspring can relax and enjoy themselves, too. "It's ironic," says Dickson, "when I first started working here, the owners didn't want to target kids." Now children are a huge part of the market. In fact, the place was named Best Family Restaurant in the Press's Best of Houston issue last year.

On my second visit, I take my 13-year-old daughter, Julia, for Sunday brunch. She lingers at the sushi counter on our way in, ogling the raw fish. Julia loves sushi, especially the kind of American-style rolls they make at Tokyohana. The tiger eye roll, stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese, is her favorite. After a sushi assortment, Julia orders the yakisoba chicken and hibachi shrimp combo, and I have the sirloin. The food is predictably bland, but Julia doesn't care. She's having great fun with the chef, whose best trick involves an egg and fried rice. The chef spins the egg into the air and neatly slices it in half, then fries the scrambled egg and folds it up with the rice.

Our chef's name is Trevor. He says he went to culinary school and worked in the restaurant business awhile before arriving at Tokyohana. "This is a lot more fun than being stuck in the kitchen," he says.

With a kid in the audience, the chef's routine is considerably more spirited. The grand finale of every cooking performance here is a game Trevor calls "Tokyohana basketball." The chef takes out a dish of chopped raw zucchini. He points to his victim and, with his spatula, flips a squash chunk high into the air. If you are the intended target, you're expected to open your mouth and catch the vegetable bit in the air. When my date and I ate here the first time, we dutifully played the game. We each caught one and missed the rest. Julia takes Tokyohana basketball much more seriously.

The first launch is too long, but she leaps from her chair, leaning over backward flapping her arms in circles trying to catch the zucchini chunk anyway. And when she catches the next one, she claps her hands in front of her and makes a noise like a trained seal. The kids at the next table go wild with applause.

Now that's eatertainment!

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Tokyohana

3239 SW Freeway
Houston, TX 77027

713-838-9527

www.tokyohana.com


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