Chances are you've heard of Benihana, the teppanyaki chain founded by Rocky Aoki that spread like wildfire across America. But did you know that his son Kevin Aoki is the owner of Doraku, that Kevin's brother is superstar DJ Steve Aoki, and that the new teppanyaki joint at Dadeland Mall is the latest addition to the restaurant family? True story.
Aoki opened its doors at the end of April. Short Order was invited to check it out. Photos after the jump.
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Adjacent to Bobby's Burger Palace and Earl's inside Dadeland Mall's new wing that's quickly filling up with eateries, Aoki prides itself on being health-conscious and obsessed with details. Take, for instance, the hostess stand, which is a giant tree, if a tree grew sideways. The decor transports you to an ancient Japanese-style village.
Aoki is a tribute to Kevin's father and a way to continue the legacy Rocky Aoki began with Benihana in 1964 when the first one opened in New York City. But it all began with Kevin's grandfather, who had a little café in Tokyo by the name of Benihana. During World War II, he'd ride his bicycle into Tokyo to get his rations of sugar and tote them back to his customers. After Rocky visited the States for the first time, he was convinced he wanted to take hibachi-style cooking and a bit of Japanese culture to America. He named his establishment Benihana. It was an immediate success and one that spawned many imitators.
Rocky Aoki passed away in 2008, but Kevin has kept the restaurant empire going with Doraku, which he purchased on Lincoln Road in 2006 after he left Benihana. Though Doraku thrives today, that wasn't always the case. "It was kind of rough for a while at first," says Aaron Hyatt, vice president of operations, who opened Doraku with Kevin. "We started doing happy hour and giving really good value for under $6, and things really started taking off. Today we're the busiest location on our end of Lincoln Road."
Doraku's success garnered the attention of Simon Malls, which approached the group to open a location at Dadeland Mall. "Through the process, it was brought up that teppanyaki would do better in the mall," Hyatt says. "We agreed, and after much talks with Kevin, he said he had to do this tribute to continue the legacy his father and grandfather began."
Located just a few miles from Samurai -- the beloved Pinecrest mainstay with a minimum hour wait on any given Sunday -- Aoki is setting out to be different by offering customers a better show at the table and greater value.
The eatery is also health-conscious in some aspects. Aoki uses sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds and uses less garlic butter and soy sauce than other teppanyaki joints.
Aoki offers a teppanyaki menu (available only at the 16 teppanyaki tables) and a sushi menu available throughout the restaurant. There are the usual teppanyaki choices, from shrimp, scallops, and lobster to New York strip, pork tenderloin, and chicken. Setting itself apart, Aoki also offers premium Wagyu beef at an $8 upcharge in June and July. Entrées come with a spinning salad, vegetables, and dipping sauces, and prices range from $17 (for chicken) to $42 (Wagyu), with combination entrées available at reasonable prices. A lunch duo for $15.25 lets you choose any two.
That's right -- noodles in your rice. Aoki uses a variety of short-grain, long-grain, brown, and black forbidden rice, which was consumed only by the emperor of China in ancient times because of its nutritional value. Lemongrass and edamame are also added to the mix, with the rice cooked in garlic and ginger.
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The sushi menu pulls 70 percent of its items from Doraku; a bigger sushi menu and new rolls will be available soon. Small plates such as asarigai sakamushi (Manila clams steamed in sake, $12) and eggplant miso ($7) are also offered. Happy hour is every day at sushi tables and the bar from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m and is just as reasonable as Doraku's. Lychee martini and well drinks are $6, with food items ranging from $3 to $7.
"We want Aoki to be a place that people can visit more than just on special occasions, as is usually the case with a Benihana or a Samurai," Hyatt says. "It's home to us, and we want to make it home to your guests too."
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha