Push, slice and dice," says Andrew Thong, head chef of the Benihana teppanyaki restaurant chain in the UK, as he leans over one of the five hotplate grills in the Japanese chain's newest restaurant in St Paul's, London.
"Push, slice and dice," he repeats, flinging his small, samurai-style knife around with angular precision. "Move the tiger prawn up and across the grill with the barbecue fork and, as it is moving, draw your knife across its tail and then slice, slice, slice... and be careful: the knife is razor-sharp."
In a single, graceful movement, Thong has prepared the tiger prawn appetiser he is to serve to the eight suited City types sitting in an arc around the teppanyaki grill in the glisteningly new restaurant in the five-star Grange Hotel. It's a warm Wednesday evening and I am Thong's student in the Japanese art of table-side teppanyaki cooking; the karate kid to his sensei – and doesn't he make it look easy. I attempt the samurai-like slicing. I fail. He smiles... then throws an egg up in the air and cuts the shell into two equal parts without it shattering. The diners are appeased. "Don't worry if you find it difficult," he says, "they'll all be watching me, anyway."
Teppanyaki cooking has an interesting history. The art of cooking on a hotplate grill began in Tokyo, but its dramatic style is anything but Japanese. In fact, local punters were non-plussed when Misono, a restaurant in downtown Tokyo, started cooking food on a table-side grill in 1945. In the land of the chrysanthemum, the ostentatious, inside-out method of dining was deemed a little, well, unseemly.
For the GIs stationed across the country, however, it was a different story. The Americans lapped it up. Which is where Rocky Aoki, the so-called father of teppanyaki, comes in.
A former Olympic wrestler and son of a Tokyo restaurateur and circus performer, Aoki emigrated to New York in 1960. Mindful of the success of teppanyaki among the US ex-pats in Tokyo, he opened Benihana of Tokyo just off Broadway in New York in 1964.
From a single, four-table restaurant, the chain grew and grew and the word "teppanyaki" embedded itself firmly in the Western lexicon. The biggest teppanyaki chain in the world, Benihana now has 79 restaurants worldwide, selling $313m (£191m) worth of sliced and diced prawns, beef and veg each year. And it's not just Benihana.
The trend towards this type of dining is growing across Britain and Europe: Leeds has a healthy contingent of teppanyaki joints – as does Birmingham and Manchester – and Glasgow's newest place, Sapporo, opened last week, along with new restaurants as far afield as Prague and Baku in Azerbaijan.
But what makes it so special? Well, the order of the thing, for a start. Here's how it works. After being greeted with customary Japanese bowing, you are led off to one of the communal horseshoe tables – which curl around a hotplate – and supplied with a healthy dose of green tea. Orders are taken, trolleys of uncooked food are brought over and then the chef, resplendent in white overalls, red hat and with a 6in tantô knife (traditionally used for ritual suicides) hanging in a scabbard on his belt, approaches. In case the sight of the large knife hasn't caught your attention, your chef bangs the grill, flips his spatula and makes a cross in the air. "We want the attention to be on the chef – and so the food," says Thong, as his spatula clatters on the steel grill. "In the Kings Road branch we don't do flipping: we just tell them we've heard there's a secret sale on at Harrods. I joke, of course".
Then the food comes. A host of amuse bouches (consisting of shredded dark veg and nori) are followed by a course of Japanese salad, in zingy soy-ginger dressing with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Then, after the sashimi, the main event: the meat or fish.
Cooked at a high heat and with only a drizzle of oil, the lightly seasoned black cod I tasted was delicious and is one of the most popular dishes on the menu. The portions are smallish, but adequate and, because the chef is six inches in front of you, you are in control of your own food, how it is cooked and how much seasoning is added. It is interactive dining in its truest sense; an attempt to give customers what they want; a less rarefied, more playful dining experience.
Teppanyaki cooking certainly seems to have won fans in and around St Paul's, with its cheerful mix of bonhomie and theatrics. Thong and his five fellow "table chefs" are doling out food to a restaurant packed with well-upholstered City boys and girls, the majority of whom are ordering one of the house specialities, which start at £35 and include soup, salad and choice of meat and fish – and, mark this, lots of them seem to be laughing and joking. At my table, a group of four bankers and three insurance brokers are united in their reasoning for visiting the teppanyaki restaurant this evening: "It's an unbeatable place to bring friends or clients," say Daniel Hall, a trader at one of the Square Mile's larger investments banks. "It's the perfect mix: you get good food and a theatrical experience. After all, who isn't impressed by a bit of samurai-esque knife skills? It beats a sushi conveyor belt."
That's immediately clear when Thong gestures to a passing waitress to stand still and open her mouth so he can toss a piece of sliced prawn into it. She giggles, smiles at him and walks on, presumably unwilling to let me attempt the same feat. But then, Thong has been throwing fish at waitresses for 15 years. I've only been in the game an hour.
Normally, chefs undergo a three-month traineeship before they are let loose in the crimson and black dining room. "We start new chefs off in the kitchen where, despite what you might think, 80 per cent of the cooking is done. Here, they learn the basics of Japanese cooking, the skills and, importantly, the attitude. You need to master the low-fat method of Japanese cooking, understand the precision use of Japanese knives and also be able to figure portions by eye," say Thong. "Our watchwords are respect (for the ingredients), focus (on the task) and balance (when it comes to portion size). The theatrics may not be traditionally Japanese, but the art at the centre of this type of cooking is. It's Japanese food with a Western twist, which is what people look for these days."
The trend towards Japanese fusion food has long been bubbling away in Europe and America, but has recently seen something of a surge, at all strata of the food world.
Sushi is the fastest-growing lunch food in the UK, with nearly 750,000 boxes sold every week (Marks & Spencer alone sells 25,000 sushi meals per day) and year-on-year sales have increased by around 10-15 per cent since 2008. And it's the same at the upper echelons of fine dining, with destination Japanese restaurant Nobu planning to open a host of new restaurants in the US. Their Las Vegas outpost is to open imminently.
However, neither lunchtime sushi nor Nobu's exhaustive haute cuisine menu can hold a candle to the fun, freshness and, dare I say it, frivolity of teppanyaki cooking. It may be part of the trend, but it also stands away from it; distinct.
Back at Benihana, Andrew Thong reinforces this point by whipping up a volcano from chopped onion and a squirt of brandy. Flames fly. Obviously this type of high-octane dining isn't going to be to everyone's taste and it probably won't win any Michelin stars, but it certainly has its loyal fans.
As Ben Machin, an architect who's here for his girlfriend's birthday and is a regular, points out: "If it's a choice between the National Theatre and here, I'll choose the theatrics here – you don't get nearly as good prawns on the South Bank."
Where to eat it
Belgrave Hall, Belgrave Street, Leeds, LS2 8DD, 0113 2453345
This Leeds stalwart goes all out on the drama front. On entry you're greeted by staff in kimonos, who lead you across a koi pool via a slatted wood bridge to your table. Full of students at lunchtimes, by night the crowd is older and drawn from the surrounding law firms. Try the set Seafood Fujiyakko menu (£26.40) for a feast that includes: miso soup, japanese salad, veg and noodles, and a mix of scallops, king prawns and sizzling salmon.
2-6 Ingram Street, Merchant City, Glasgow, G1 1HA, 0141 553 4060
The newest addition to Glasgow's teppanyaki scene. The large steel and pine restaurant (pictured) has slightly larger teppanyaki tables, which seat 14, so this is not a place for quiet tête-à-têtes. Along with all the usual set menus, which range in price from £26 to £40, they also do a Sunday brunch where the chef cooks a traditional Glasgow breakfast on the teppanyaki grill in Japanese low-fat style.
SEN NIN, LONDON
35 Pratt Street, Camden, London, NW1 0BG, 020 7096 1276
A temple to all things Japanese in a Camden side street. This pretty restaurant is perfect for celebrations or as a stop-off after a day spent traipsing around the market. As well as sizzling teppanyaki and sushi it serves a range of Japanese-themed cocktails. Famed for its sesame-seasoned prawns.
593-595 Mansfield Road, Sherwood, Nottingham, NG5 2FW, 0115 9691660
This place may look like a 1980s throwback, but with set menus starting at £18 and including prawns, salmon, steak and rice and soup, this is one of the best value teppanyaki restaurants around. Try the mahi mahi fish if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary.
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