This Ain’t No Benihana: Teppanyaki at Yamanami in Tokyo
From a splurge at an exclusive sushi bar to a kaiseki experience in a private dining room to a formal French dinner, I’ve had the fortune to enjoy a number of high-end meals in Japan. But, until recently, I’d never had teppanyaki.
I should have known better, upon being invited to a teppanyaki dinner at Yamanami in Tokyo’s Keio Plaza Hotel, than to (half-jokingly) ask, “Is it like eating at Benihana?”
Please pardon the American in me. Even I equated teppanyaki with performance dining you’ll find at places like Benihana. That’s the common perception. As one Tripadvisor reviewer wrote after visiting the national chain’s Seattle location: “The cook provides a great show, throwing things like onions, lemons, etc. and catching it with a fork without moving it.…All in one, the food is great and the show is fun.”
Comments are similar for Seattle’s own Mikado Teppanyaki Steak, Seafood, & Sushi Bar. (Too many things for one restaurant to do well.) One person on Urbanspoon, entitling the review “Good show, okay food,” explained: “I’d never experienced teppanyaki which among other things involved the chef’s lighting stacks of onions on fire, throwing knives up in the air and catching them, etc. Our group of around 30 people included a child, and the child was overjoyed by this performance. The chef got the kid involved by having him bang a gong during the birthday song and it was clear that he loved it.”
Meanwhile, a Yelp reviewer of Mikado wrote: “The chef put on a great performance and made lots of noise and fancy moves with his cooking utensils. Watching him made me feel like a little kid. I never knew how much fun it could be to let someone else play with your dinner.”
In America, teppanyaki is apparently a performance to make diners feel like children, with the show perhaps more important than the food. In Japan, teppanyaki is about dignified preparation and presentation that respects the food. Showmanship is understated. Diners will watch the chef at work, but ultimately the meal is about high quality ingredients cooked simply and deliciously. (All of the ingredients are carefully sourced to be as local and seasonal as possible. I got a Japan geography lesson throughout dinner.)
Talk with the chef and you’ll learn about the art of teppanyaki cooking. For example, the teppan (grill) at Yamanami is two centimeters thick, providing constant heat (170 degrees Celsius) so the food doesn’t stick. Mastering the teppan takes time, and becoming a teppanyaki chef is no easy feat. The apprenticeship is rigorous. The chef I met at Yamanami spent his first five years not cooking in front of customers, but simply prepping ingredients and cleaning grills. (Cleaning is quite the chore. It takes two people one hour to clean a grill.)
I’m glad he persevered so that he could tell me his story and help me understand and appreciate my meal. Read on for a walk through a wonderfully surprising and delicious teppanyaki experience at Yamanami.