Rocky Aoki, the man who brought Japanese culinary showmanship to America with Benihana, died last week. According to the AP story, Aoki was surrounded by his wife and six children during his final moments, which must have been awkward considering he sued four of those kids -- two from each of his first two wives -- after they tried to take over his restaurant chain. Apparently, they don't like his current wife.
Forget the gossip and dirt, though, and let's remember the man for his accomplishments: teppan-yaki, stateside. Aoki opened his first Benihana in New York in 1964, starting an empire that's blossomed into more than 100 restaurants and thousands of imitators. Every time a chop-socky chef flips shrimp tails into his hat, builds a smoking onion volcano, or tells a tired karate kid joke before serving you griddled steak and barely cooked veggies doused in soy, you have Aoki to thank.
Beyond Benihana, Aoki was a cool cat who wrestled on the Japanese Olympic team; raced cars, boats and motorcycles; was the first man to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon; founded classic eighties porno mag Genesis; won backgammon championships; participated in a Cannonball Run-like cross country race in a stretch Volkswagon Beetle limousine; and once had a horrific boating accident that required 10 hours of surgery and multiple removed organs. When he came to three days later, he saw his wife and his mistress waiting for him bedside. Damn, player!
That's a life well lived, worth a raised Mai Tai or two at whatever teppan-yaki joint you favor.
The restaurant/bar/video gamery/recording studio/money pit brought luminaries like Fat Joe and Fabolous to walk the red carpet at the opening of the restaurant chain's second location last week. It must have been scheduled to coincide with an unprecedented lull in hip-hop song collaboration to attract those also rans.
Hey, wait a minute - second location? There's that decrepit spot in St. Pete that bore the HipHopSodaShop sign for the past few years, never open and now for lease. And yeah, there's also that desperate, empty building near USF that feels like some unpopular teenage fanboy is holding a perpetual wake for Biggie in a defunct Bennigans, complete with the Xbox from his basement. But that can't be the flagship, can it?
I guess it sort of embodies "a business with a consciousness that embraces the totality of today's young people.'' Huh.
Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news? Bad news? I thought so.
Tedesco's Grillside on Central Ave. in downtown St. Pete has shuttered it's doors. Rumor has that there is paper covering the windows and the phones are already disconnected. I haven't been able to reach anyone for comment, but I'd really like to know who the next owners will be and what former chef Daniel Womack is up to, if he's out of a job. Anyone? Fill me in?
Now, the good news: The Table, one of my favorite restaurants in Sarasota (winner of CL's Best Restaurant of the Suncoast in 2006), is finally opening it's second location, right down the street from the defunct Tedesco's. Chef/owners Rafael Manzano and Pedro Flores will be peddling the same incredible Carribbean/Latin/Med fusion that I've grown to love down south, along with a mojito-heavy lounge area. And, since there are two of them, they can split their attention and still keep the quality up.
The Table will have a soft opening tomorrow night, then regular seating beginning Thursday, or Friday at the latest. 727-823-3700, 535 Central Ave, St. Petersburg
Downtown St. Pete's Cafe Alma, which opened in 2002 and quickly became a popular spot known for a kick-ass bloody mary brunch, has been sold! Original owners Dwight and Catherine Watkins have decided to pursue other ventures, with new owners Scott Vogel and Tony Harahan taking over immediately.
Dan Soronen and Sarah Potter (that's them in the pic), who opened the Old Northeast Tavern (which I'll be profiling in next week's issue of CL) in 2006, will also be moving on. They built the place into a one-of a kind local joint, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood, the kind of pub that's more community living room than bar/restaurant. They didn't really want to sell, but needed to help out ailing parents up North. Soronen told me that he and Potter are thinking about getting back into the business, perhaps later this year with a place on Coquina Key.
New owners Mark Brindle and Bob Wareham (he used to own Sea Critters on St. Pete Beach) promise no serious changes when they take over April 1st.
âWe bought it because itâs working,â Wareham says. âWeâve got a good thing going here.â I think the neighbors will be happy to hear that.
Chef Jeanie Pierola left Bern's this past weekend after ongoing disagreements with Bern's scion David Laxer came to a head. All I can say is that it looks like good news for the rest of us. C'mon, who out there wasn't getting a little tired of the relentlessly eclectic menu and overweening bar crowd at SideBerns?
Now, likely, we'll get a brand new place with the accomplished Pierola behind the menu. And it's not likely the ever-static Bern's itself will change for the worse now that she's gone.
Don't really know what that title means, but I have news about celebrity chef and all-around scary fella Robert Irvine's poorly named restaurant in St. Petersburg. Ooze and Schmooze was originally scheduled to open this month at 400 Beach Dr., but that's not going to happen. According to the building's developers, the earliest they expect the restaurant to be ready is March, due to the complexity of the construction and permitting.
Perhaps Ooze and Schmooze should be the next episode of Dinner Impossible.
I will now go into hiding to avoid a beat-down from the burly chef.
Painters are busy covering the atrocious pink facade at Soho's Chateau France outpost; the number for the N. Dale Mabry location is disconnected; both locations have vanished from Chateau France's website. Looks like impressario Antoine Louro is in complete retreat to his base in St. Pete.
According to former Chateau France (SoHo) chef Tony Savage, the partnership between Louro and the owners of the SoHo property (Barry Smith and MaryAnn Stiles) was dissolved last week. There won't be much interruption of service, though, since the spot will immediately re-open as Chateau SoHo, with Savage as executive chef and a more appetizing exterior.
"I was in New Orleans for 23 years before Katrina," says Savage, who will be sliding some French-inspired Creole and Cajun favorites onto the menu, along with more medium- and lower-priced French dishes to temper the previously ultra-expensive fare.
UPDATE: I just received a return call from the ever-gregarious Antoine Louro. He confirmed that the North Tampa location was closed -- he sold it about six weeks ago -- and that his partnership with Smith and Stiles was over. "Partnership doesn't work if you're not in the business," he said, explaining that Stiles' is a lawyer and doesn't understand restaurants.
After the aborted expansion of the past two years, he has no plans on opening any more outposts. "Every person wants to open a Chateau France," he said, "but I'm done with it. I'm happy here in my house in St. Pete."
The NoHo Bistro will start doing brunch on Sunday, Oct. 14 which, by itself, is news of a sort. That section of Tampa is a bit starved for decent restaurants, especially since NoHo's neighbor Vivia's closed earlier this year. But brunch? Not terribly exciting.
Unless you have a "southern grits bar". I can imagine a burbling pot of engorged cornmeal surrounded by bowls of butter, cheese, chili, sausage, peppers and onions, with fruit and sugar for the sweet fans. Maybe even shrimp. I'm salivating.
Blueberry-cinammon sausage and fruit sushi also sound intriguing, but only in small portions. More room for grits.
UPDATE: A copy of the first menu is after the break.
Local Coffee & Tea - the Sarasota-based minichain of coffee houses - has joined forces with Susan Huff of Integrity Organic. For a while, Local owner Mike Duranko had avowed to CL that he wasn't going to get in the food business at the St. Pete location. Well, he isn't. Susan is, using his kitchen. She'll be managing 330 1st Ave. S location and preparing the home-made, largely organic fare that she's become known for.
Both Duranko and Huff share eco-sensibilities, so her food combined with the best coffee in the Bay area should be a good match.