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No “Beni” For This Hana

February 16, 2010

In trying to figure out how best to review Hana, the Japanese hibachi restaurant on Western Ave in Albany, I decided that it would make the most sense to compare it to what is arguably the gold standard of hibachi, Benihana.  I would surmise that a large majority of people reading this have experienced Benihana at least once, but for those who have not, Benihana restaurants can be found in pretty much every major city in the country, trademarked by the hibachi-style of cooking, which means people sit around a giant hibachi grill and the food is cooked right in front of you.  The menu features basic Japanese preparations of seafood, chicken, beef, vegetables and rice, as well as traditional sushi and appetizers, along with an extensive drink menu.  It’s not cheap, but you are paying not only for the food, but the whole experience – to paraphrase the Simpsons, you could go out to dinner and a show, or go to Benihana where dinner is the show.  I’ve been to Benihana many times, and it’s always a fun experience.

The first thing I noticed about Hana was how crowded it was.  In my 4 ½ years in Albany, I have never seen a restaurant as packed as Hana was on Saturday night.  Maybe it was due to the 3-day weekend, and that it was also Valentine’s Day weekend, but the joint was jumping.  Luckily I had made a reservation, so we only waited about 10 minutes before our seats at the hibachi were available.  That gave us time to order from the bar; Hana features a good selection of signature drinks, including some made with unique alcohols like lychee liqueur, Dragon berry rum, and something called Zen liqueur.

The décor of Hana is fairly minimalist compared to Benihana, which seems rather dark and uses dark wood furniture and red lanterns.  Hana has light wood everywhere with black wood accents, and the high ceilings give it a very casual and bright atmosphere.

We sat with 7 other diners at our hibachi, and ordered a sushi appetizer before the main course festivities began.  Hana’s sushi menu is quite extensive; we opted for the Maguro Karbom, which featured a piece of seared tuna topped with “spicy tuna,” which was ahi tuna mashed up with a spicy mayo, and topped with quick-fried onion strips.  The sushi pieces sat in a “karbom pepper sauce.”  It was absolutely amazing.  The contrast in texture between the tender seared tuna, the creamy spicy tuna and the crispy onions was perfect.  And the pepper sauce added just the right amount of spice.  I would go back to Hana just for sushi, based on this one dish.

But on to the main event – the hibachi dinner.  Part of the experience depends on the chef – some are more engaging and fun than others.  Ours was definitely in a good mood Saturday night.  Like at Benihana, the chef showed off his kitchen utensil flipping skills, he created an “onion volcano” where he cut an onion in a mountain shape and then steam blasts out of the center, and formed the giant mound of rice into a heart shape and made it “beat” with the spatula underneath.  You could argue that Benihana created these entertaining displays, but regardless, they’re always fun to watch.  But Hana does a couple of things differently, first with regard to food-tossing.  Benihana chefs always flip a piece of shrimp in the air and catch it in their hat.  Our Hana chef sliced up a zucchini, and then proceeded to flip a piece into each diner’s mouth (or tried to anyway)…about half the zucchini ended up on the floor, but it was a fun game.  The other thing that happened – and I’m not sure how legal it is – was that the chef had a squeeze bottle full of sake (used for cooking), and at one point he started squeezing shots into each of the male diner’s mouths (why he skipped the women I have no idea), and he even gave a squeeze to a guy at the table next to ours.  Any restaurant that squeezes sake into your mouth for no charge is ok in my book.

I ordered the seafood combination – shrimp, scallops and lobster tail.  Benihana offers calamari steak, which I was disappointed not to see on Hana’s menu, but nonetheless, this would my first time having hibachi lobster tail.  My dining companion went with the chicken and steak combo.  Each dinner is served with vegetables and fried rice.  The veggies were great and the rice was decent, but Benihana’s fried rice is just about the best fried rice around.  My shrimp was cooked perfectly, and the scallops and lobster were very good as well – if I had to nitpick, I’d say the chef left the scallops and lobster on the grill a tad too long, but they were certainly delicious.  The chicken and steak were very good as well.  All of the other diners at our table pretty much cleaned their plates, as did we, leaving no room for dessert.

With Benihana’s dinners you also get soup and salad, which is not the case at Hana, but I didn’t really miss it too much.  Like Benihana, it’s not a cheap night out at Hana, but with 3 drinks and tip, we still only paid a little over $100, well worth it for the food and the overall experience.  The Mouse House Kitchen gives Hana 4.5 out of 5 stars!

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