There’s probably not a person in America who isn’t familiar with Benihana, the teppanyaki restaurant that started in NYC in 1964 and soon spread all over the country. Benihana was founded by the very colorful Rocky Aoki, an adventurer and restaurateur I was fortunate to know for many years. Unfortunately, with his passing in 2008, an ugly family battle was waged and his third wife, Keiko, emerged victorious.
However, Rocky’s son, Kevin, has remained in the food game, creating a successful sushi chain called Doraku. There are two locations in Miami (Lincoln Road and Mary Brickell Village), as well as restaurants in Hawaii (two), Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh. And a lease has just been signed in Buckhead, Atlanta.
But here’s the most exciting news: It was recently announced that Kevin is opening a new concept at Dadeland Mall called Aoki Teppanyaki. As someone who grew up eating at Benihana, I was intrigued to learn more about this developing restaurant. So I spoke to Kevin in Hawaii, where he resides, and he exclusively gave me the details about Aoki Teppanyaki, which is a love letter to his father.
“My focus is to look at what Japan’s all about and bring that excitement of Japan to the customer,” Kevin says. “It will feel like you are walking into a small village in Kyoto. In Japan, there are stores that focus on specific food: yakitori, udon, tempura. I will bring this festive village, that atmosphere, to Dadeland. There will be a sushi bar and, of course, teppanyaki tables. It’s more of a Japanese focused experience. I’ve been going to Japan three or four times a year.”
Of course, there are the inevitable comparisons to Benihana. Kevin doesn’t dispute this, noting he worked for his father’s global chain for over 20 years in every capacity. “I love the brand,” he acknowledges. “It’s a part of me. But I’m not opening to compete with Benihana.”
Instead, he will focus on high-quality ingredients. Kevin is talking to prestigious purveyors like Snake River Farms. “I’m focusing on the details,” he explains. “Instead of button mushrooms, I will use shiitake mushrooms. Instead of zucchini and onions, I am looking at asparagus and other vegetables. The presentation will be different, and the way we serve our salad.” Aside from the tasty teppanyaki fare of grilled chicken, steak and shrimp, eaters can also expect tempura, yakitori, sushi and ramen.
Kevin chose Dadeland Mall, which is undergoing a major renovation and wooing other gourmet concepts like Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace, because the demographic is family-friendly. He recognizes that Aoki Teppanyaki will cater to this market perfectly. After all, who can resist the spectacle of chefs cooking in front of you? Or tempura ice cream?
Aoki Teppanyaki will open in September in a 6,100-square foot space in the new wing of the mall. If it’s successful (which I think it will be!) Kevin intends to launch other locations, as he has done with Doraku.
Kevin is also working on another concept, an organic coffee shop called Blue Tree, which just debuted in Hawaii. Aside from gourmet coffee, Blue Tree serves fresh juice, kale salad and other holistic fare. This is a truly personal project for Kevin because Aoki in Japanese means Blue Tree. It also harkens back to his paternal grandfather, Yunosuke Aoki, who opened a coffee shop in Japan in 1942 called, you guessed it, Benihana. “It’s a tribute to my grandfather,” he says, “but more modern and relevant for today.” Kevin hopes to bring Blue Tree to Miami, too.
Of course, it’s all personal for the Aoki clan, including siblings Devon (the former Chanel model) and Steve (one of the biggest DJs and music producers in the world). While they don’t have ownership in Aoki Teppanyaki, they will be sure to support their namesake restaurant.
“I don’t think about competing with Benihana,” Kevin sums up. “It’s more about how I can excite customers. It seems similar to Benihana, but I’m doing my own restaurant with my own twists.” I, for one, can’t wait!