"Benihana popular again after six-month makeover

Aging can be painful, not just for us unfortunate mortals but for restaurants as well. Given a couple of decades, even the most elegant dining space can wrinkle and sag. While Japanese cuisine may still seem trendy and fresh, it’s actually approaching a midlife crisis. Sushi is ubiquitous in supermarkets and food courts; Japanese steakhouses are hardly the “latest” thing in entertaining cuisine.

Vivid evidence of this came almost a year ago when, hearing about new sushi lunch specials, I found a friend and headed to Benihana, the self-proclaimed progenitor of Japanese cuisine in the United States. So synonymous with Japanese steakhouse eats is Benihana that I often hear people say, “Oh, I ate at the one in Greenwood,” or “the one on the Westside.” To clarify, Indianapolis, has just one Benihana, behind the Fashion Mall on Indy’s Northside. But the company name is pervasive.

What greeted my friend and me at Benihana all those months ago wasn’t exactly a soothing, pristine environment for enjoying Japanese cuisine. Furniture was worn, teppanyaki grill tops scuffed from dozens of cleanings. The whole place had the smell and grime of having served its share of the 100 million meals Benihana claims to have prepared over 42 years. One employee banged a child’s drum, screeching “Happy Birthday” to a red-faced patron. Food-wise, grilled items like chicken and shrimp lacked flavor; sushi seemed much less fresh than at many nearby Japanese eateries. When we asked what one item on a sushi boat was, a confused employee guessed, “Whitefish?”

To hear it from the horse’s mouth, Benihana is responsible for just about all aspects of Japanese cuisine in the West. Our appreciation of sushi, soy sauce and hibachi steakhouses are all “thanks to Benihana,” their Web site (www.benihana.com) claims. Certainly, the story of Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki’s little four-seat restaurant on West 56th Street in New York is compelling. Apparently, he sold ice cream seven days a week to help finance the first Benihana, created in the style of his parents’ Tokyo coffeehouse.

No doubt Aoki’s restaurant did a lot toward teaching Americans about the food of his homeland. Ads in the 1970s eased wary diners in with the promise of “No slithery, fishy things.” Today, Benihana, named for a humble red safflower, has restaurants on five continents — everywhere from Caracas to Dubai. But does such a global juggernaut still impress when cities like Indy have upwards of 30 privately owned Japanese restaurants?

Recognizing its age, Benihana closed the doors of its Keystone location in April for a much-needed “extreme makeover.” While the press on the renovation employed plenty of jargon emphasizing “power” and “energy,” the proof would come only in a return visit. Thankfully, the same friend was available, so we wasted no time in stopping in after the reopening on Oct. 17.

Outside, pillars were newly painted with the red Benihana emblem; windows revealed a packed dining room. The restaurant’s popularity definitely hadn’t waned. A full half-dozen employees greeted us inside, one of them inflating an orange balloon. The main dining room bustled with activity; wait staff played toy instruments for not just one but several birthdays. Beyond the cacophony, however, a lot of attention had clearly gone into the renovation. Color emanated from backdrops; furniture and teppanyaki stations had a fresh, youthful glow. Even bathroom walls shimmered with red subway tiles. A wilted flower had bloomed anew.

Desiring a little privacy, we asked if we could have dinner in the lounge, a spacious, less trafficked section with the high-pitched beams of a Japanese farmhouse. A host gladly showed us to open seats and suggested the Endless Sushi Lover special for $25.95, even indicating special options not on the list. While our waitress seemed distracted at times, we appreciated the host’s presence and recommendations.

As with the décor, Benihana’s food has undergone a makeover. This time, sushi was much fresher and better prepared, everything from delicious red snapper to an excellent surf clam. And Benihana really means it when they say “endless.” A choice of sushi rolls included a spider roll, though this wasn’t as crunchy as it could have been and came a bit oversauced. Non-sushi items included agedashi tofu, here in a somewhat oily sauce; baked green mussels with a very tasty, slightly sweet topping; a crisp, cooling seaweed salad; and steamed dumplings, unfortunately tough around the edges. Banana tempura lacked crispness, but overall this proved a satisfying meal at a great value.

Among grilled items, the Land and Sea, just edging $30, easily included as much food, all well-prepared, if none of it too daringly conceived. Onion soup was straightforward; an iceberg salad swam with dressing. Bite-sized morsels of grilled filet were perfectly medium and succulent, though mustard and ginger sauces didn’t exactly wow. Vegetables, however, were crisp and tasty. Green tea ice cream made for a soothing finish.

Never did the raucous throngs in the main dining room quiet down. If anything, Benihana has become synonymous with a rollicking celebration place. That’s a sharp contrast to most other Japanese eateries in town, where peace and privacy seem the central aesthetics. The appeal here appears to be that you’re doing what so many people all over the world are doing, that you’re a part of that 42-year history of this once-exclusive eatery — now in its spiffed-up digs.

Benihana

8830 Keystone Crossing Road317-846-2495

Hours

Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10 P.m.

Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10:30 P.m.

Sunday Noon-9 p.m.

Food : Three and a half stars

Atmosphere : Four stars

Service : Three and a half stars

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