BENIHANA (100 Front West, arcade level, 416-860-5002) Complete meals for $55 per person ($35 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a sake. Average main $30/$18. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2 pm and for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 pm, Friday 5:30 to 10 pm, Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
For the next two weeks, more than a hundred local restaurants are offering specially priced three-course prix fixe meals as part of the third annual Winterlicious. The food fest began as a way to boost downtown dining at this time of year, when customers don't want to even leave the house, let alone traipse across town to some trendy trat.
Its overwhelming popularity means that your chances of snaring reservations at some of the bigger draws, like $30 all-inclusive noshes at Centro, Canoe and Truffles, are next to none - although last-minute cancellations do occur. But Winterlicious is a great opportunity to check out some new spots as well as a few old favourites where you'd otherwise never be caught dead. Places like Benihana.
The last time I attended the U.S.-owned Japanese joint where chefs cook on table-top grills while juggling meat cleavers was for a Christmas office party several years ago. I don't recall very much, but I do remember a lot of food flying about.
With that in mind, gal pal Jennifer Convertible and I return to the Royal York to take another look at the venerable tourist-attraction-cum-steakhouse-slash-sushi-shack, which will be doing lunch for $20 and dinner for $30 during Winterlicious.
Its cuisine might not be haute, but Benihana's a hoot.
We enter through the hotel's York Street revolving doors and descend the staircase to the subterranean eatery's lobby grotto. A fan of retro tiki kitsch, Convertible falls in love with the room's campy decor at first sight. She says it's like Trader Vic never went to that big luau in the sky.
But instead of getting lei'd, we're led to a teppanyaki table that seats eight, one of several scattered about the deeply carpeted space. Since the meal deal hasn't commenced this Monday noon, we assemble our lunch from Benihana's à la carte menu.
After an appetite-stimulating sake ($7.50), Convertible begins with vegetarian tempura ($6). Lightly battered and relatively grease-free, it's the sort of thing that wouldn't be out of place at any of Toronto's thousands of sushi-terias. Neither would California roll ($7.50), six miniature maki and another optional, if perfunctory, prix fixe starter.
But there's nothing routine about the house onion soup ($3.50), a lovely light broth swimming with barely cooked 'shrooms and a chiffonade of scallion. The Benihana salad that accompanies most set dinners surprises, too. Rather than the basic iceberg 'n' bottled ranch found in similar establishments, it consists of mesclun in a very pleasant citrus-scented miso dressing.
As we carefully sip complimentary mugs of scalding green tea, our chef arrives at table and announces it's showtime. Actually, other than his "There you go, dude" when he eventually loads up our plates with Hibachi Chicken ($17.50 lunch) and Hibachi Steak ($22, both with steamed rice, stir-fried veggies and green tea ice cream), he doesn't say a word. But he's definitely theatrical.
Convertible has read that a deceased man's family is suing the multinational for $10 million in New York City, claiming the poor fellow died of complications from a neck injury allegedly caused by a flying shrimp at Benihana's Munsey Park, Long Island, location. But unfortunately for my friend, apart from some duelling spatula action and an airborne peppermill routine that calls to mind Tom Cruise in Cocktail, all her grub is grounded.
Both her boneless chicken breast and my rare steak come cubed, lightly drizzled with soy and sesame and sided with al dente stir-fried zucchini strips and roughly chopped Spanish onion.
On their own, pre-Winterlicious, both dishes are perfectly average and overpriced. But knock some bucks off the damage and throw in some genuinely entertaining - if hokey - dinner theatre and Benihana's one of the tastiest bargains in the core.
Just remember not to sit too close, especially if you decide to have the shrimp.