THE intriguing account by Simon Rees last week of the ritual meals with which the Japanese see in the New Year may have given the impression that Japanese food culture is too alien ever to be really big here. While that is undoubtedly true of some of the delicacies described (even the Gastropod balks at black beans cooked with a rusty nail), Japanese food remains this column's hot tip for 1994.

There are no rusty nails at the vast and lavish new Benihana on the King's Road, west London, where Japanese food is made easy and entertaining. Benihana is the brainchild of Rocky Aoki, 'Olympic wrestler, balloonist and millionaire restaurateur'. He opened his first Benihana restaurant - where customers sit around a teppanyaki grill while their food is cooked by a flamboyant, knife-juggling chef - in New York 30 years ago. Since then, Mr Aoki has built an empire of 88 restaurants, including his only one in Europe - at Swiss Cottage, north London. Now he is planning to open 20 more across the Continent, four of them in the London area.

Meanwhile, Wagamama, the phenomenally successful noodle bar in central London, is due to reopen on Tuesday, after a fortnight's break. It will be offering an updated menu featuring yakitori as well as a couple of new noodle varieties, and introducing a marvellous machine that can turn out gyoza (dumplings) at the rate of 800 an hour.

And, at the Yaohan Plaza, the Japanese shopping complex in north London, important lessons are being learnt about food retailing in the West. Last November, at a symposium organised to coincide with an exhibition of speciality food products at Yaohan, there was much talk about the healthful properties of the Japanese diet and the potential for dissemination of the food culture. As one of the delegates portentously remarked: 'Until now, we have concentrated on exporting technology, but now must be the time to develop the international market for rice-based food products.'

While some of those present doubted that Western palates could ever fully adjust to the salty taste of shoyu, British nutritionists assured them that health is now the primary factor in determining food choice, and that, once the British public was convinced that Japanese food was healthy, there would be little difficulty in persuading us to experiment.

WHEN one considers premium teas, one naturally thinks of Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, but these two establishments charge a small fortune for their own packaged varieties. So it seems inevitable that some ingenious company should sooner or later have challenged the duopoly - and the Gastropod duly salutes the success of Newby Single Estate teas.

Packed in green caddies, Newby's teas are the unblended products of specific Indian plantations, carefully selected by expert tasters in Calcutta to ensure that the Darjeeling does actually have a detectable fragrance of muscatel, and that the Assam is robust enough to make the average workman forswear his cup of Typhoo for ever.

Newby teas do not come cheap but, at about pounds 2.50 for 125 grams, they are a match for Harrods or Fortnum's, and can be bought from 110 Safeway stores throughout the South-east. Or, at least, they should be: the first 15,000 tins supplied for a three-month promotion, starting last November, sold out in three weeks.

REGULAR readers of this column will recall that the good people at Restaurant Services, the London restaurant advisory and booking switchboard, occasionally receive telephone inquiries from people who are confused about the nature of the restaurant they are trying to track down, and who tend to garble its name.

Thus, Signor Zilli turns into Monsieur Groovy, dell'Ugo is rendered as Ugly Del, the Gay Hussar becomes a Gay Hustler. The prize, however, goes to Quigliani's, Squigilino's, Squigliani, Gooliano's, Quaggers or whatever that big, trendy restaurant in central London actually calls itself.