‘Teppan by Benjarong' serves Japanese cuisine exactly the way you like it

Japan's the new cool kid in class. Tokyo's influencing fashion like never before. Forget Goth and all its reincarnations, from Marilyn Manson to the vampire Cullen family. Now it's all cutesy skirts, rebonded hair and Hello Kitty.

There's the infamous Fugu (blow fish), food for diners who enjoy living dangerously. This fish contains a deadly poison (tetrodotoxin) in its entrails, liver and ovaries — all of which need to be carefully discarded. According to The New York Times “There is a 50-per cent fatality rate among those who ingest tetrodotoxin, and every year about 100 fugu fanciers in Japan fail to survive dinner.”

Although Chennai diners have proved to be increasingly daring over the last couple of years, we do draw the line at playing death roulette with sushi. After all, it's so much more fun to kill yourself with fried chicken and sugary soft drinks, right?

Newly opened ‘Teppan by Benjarong' is the ideal teppanyaki joint for this city. It's set in an intelligently designed space that's cosy without ever feeling too crowded, complete with all the bells and whistles of Japanese dining from flowered wallpaper to tinkly music.

While Japanese cuisine features one of the most dangerous meals known to man, ironically it's also incredibly healthy. This is why the bento box, their version of a packed lunch, is popular across the world. Teppan plans to introduce bento boxes soon. Till you can knock yourself out (figuratively of course) on dramatic teppanyaki, loved by diamond-dripping socialites in India thanks to its low-calorie advantage and stylish presentation. Today, it's less exotic, which is a good thing if you don't want your sweet-and-sour fish drowned in the scent of your neighbour's Chanel No. 5. Teppan's got a friendly vibe going, with 4 large tables — each built around a grill — that force strangers to socialise.

We start with prawn tempura, wrapped in a chiffon-like batter that quickly soaks up the soy sauce, which is served with a zingy ginger-garlic paste. Chef Regi Mathew of Oriental Cuisines (the mother company for M. Mahadevan's chain of restaurants) says he spent time in Japan doing research for the menu in an effort to get it just right.

Oriental Cuisine's big advantage is how familiar they are with Chennai diners and their taste buds. Hence, while the food is authentic, the menu's been tailored so it appeals to Japanese cuisine novices instead of just targeting the snob circuit.

Hence the prevalence of the ever-popular tempura. Our vegetable tempura sushi is both tasty and familiar. For those who find it too tame, there's also Tamago, Ebi and Unagi flown in from Japan. I abandon my excessively salty miso despite my dining companion's insistence that it's great for the skin. Next up is the sea bass, cooked quickly on the grill in front of us by our friendly wise-cracking chef who keeps the whole table entertained with his juggling.

It's smothered in sauce, which works if you like flavours to explode like Diwali crackers — and a lot of Indian diners do. Between juggling knives, our chef also cooks up a fried rice, chunky with prawns, brightened with scallions and sizzling with garlic butter. He follows that with lamb chops in a barbeque sauce.

The advantage of this kind of dining is you can ask the chef to tailor your food exactly the way you like it, since everything is made in front of you. Endearingly, they have a table exclusively for vegetarians too. It can be a little noisy with all that scraping and slicing on the grill. Saves making conversation though, so it's a perfect for a boring date. It's also an ideal place to dine alone.

They have a Sugar Bar where you can pick your desserts. We try the wasabi icecream, which has all of the flavour of wasabi without the kick. Though, to be honest, the kick is my addiction, even if it does make me feel like I've been punched in the nose by a sumo wrestler.

Teppan at Benjarong is 146, TTK Road. For reservations call 3221 16635.

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