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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sushi Step by Step

Lessons in Japanese cuisine

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Benihana may be internationally known for theatrical teppanyaki favorites like the steaming onion choo-choo train and the ol’ eggshell in the chef’s hat-flip trick, but it has another Japanese specialty hidden up its kimono sleeve: sushi!

While the enduring Asian culinary tradition of sushi, sashimi, maki and temaki has long had a seat at this Japanese hibachi steakhouse, it is often overlooked for the sizzling chicken, steak, seafood and garden vegetables cooked fresh on the hibachi grill before diners’ eyes. This weekend, however, all eyes will be on ingredients of the uncooked variety. Expert sushi chefs at Benihana Milwaukee will be teaching participants of the restaurant’s two-hour sushi rolling class the proper technique for preparing their own handmade sushi rolls.

Benihana founder Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki is often credited for introducing traditional Japanese cuisine and culinary culture into mainstream America, paving the way for the popularity of other Japanese cooking styles and food products. After arriving in the United States in 1960, Aoki worked seven days a week selling ice cream from a truck in Harlem, N.Y., and studied restaurant management at night. Three robberies and two stab wounds couldn’t deter him and by 1964 Aoki had scraped together enough money to open his first four-table restaurant on New York’s West 56th Street. He named his restaurant Benihana, Japanese for “red flower,” in honor of his parents, who owned a small restaurant of the same name in postwar Tokyo. Guests would sit at communal tables that encircled large iron griddles where food was prepared before them, “teppan” (steel grill) “yaki” (broiled)-style, by highly trained chefs who Aoki encouraged, in the spirit of nearby Broadway, to be dramatic and engaging.

Six months after Benihana opened, a favorable review by the New York Herald Tribune restaurant critic sent New Yorkers flocking to the tiny Japanese eatery. Aoki opened another Benihana location three blocks east of the original, then moved to Chicago to build his third location just four years later. By 1972, Aoki had opened six Benihana restaurants. Since the company’s initial public offering in 1983, Benihana has acquired 17 teppanyaki-style restaurants, as well as Kyoto, Samurai, Haru Sushi and RA Sushi restaurants. The year before Rocky Aoki’s death in 2008 marked the opening of the 100th restaurant owned or franchised by Benihana Inc.

Benihana Milwaukee has been in its current Downtown digs on the corner of Plankinton and Kilbourn avenues since 2000. According to Sabah Liddawyeh, general manager of Benihana Milwaukee, the sushi rolling classes the restaurant has previously offered have been enormously popular. Under the supervision of one of Benihana’s sushi chefs, classes take place at the sushi bar, where students will be taught step by step how sushi rice is made. The sushi rolls that participants prepare for themselves and eat—California roll (steamed crab, avocado and cucumber), spicy tuna roll or Philly roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber), all of which can be made vegetarian—are a newer variation of sushi created to suit the Western palate and are rarely, if at all, found in Japan.

Benihana Milwaukee takes reservations for its Saturday, May 16, sushi rolling class up until the day of the class. If there’s enough space, management will allow walk-ins. The price of the two-hour lesson is $30 and includes rice and a soft drink.

For the third year, Benihana Milwaukee will be hosting a two-hour hibachi chef lesson—this time at 12 p.m. on July 11. The session includes a return visit to the restaurant to cook a meal for family and friends on July 13 or 14. The class fee of $100 includes lunch during the initial training and dinner for four at the new chef’s debut meal, which includes Japanese onion soup, Benihana salad, fried rice, shrimp appetizer, entree (chicken, shrimp or steak) and a soft drink.

Located at 850 N. Plankinton Ave. Call (414) 270-0890 or visit www.benihana.com.