Monday, May 26, 2008

A Disappointing Bento

Today I had my very first restaurant bento.

Since it's memorial day, BF and I had the day off. On our way to the grocery store, BF commented that it since it was lunch time, all of the restaurants would have lunch specials.

So we popped into our favorite Japanese restaurant where instead of the usual menus, they had a one page "Bento box specials" menu. Obviously, I was quite excited. I ordered the chicken teriyaki bento, BF ordered an unagi bento

Although the food was good, I was struck by two things as soon as the bento boxes were set on the table.

  • There was less variety of food than I was expecting. My bento contained a garden salad, a chicken breast, vegetable tempura, white rice and an orange slice. Miso soup was served on the side.
  • The boxes were huge! About the size of an average placemat. And the portions were huge as well. I felt like I was eating salad for ages, and in the end I only finished half of it. Same thing with the rice.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me, because I wasn't expecting to go out to lunch.

Overall, I felt a bit disappointed because everything I've read about Japanese cuisine has emphasized the importance of portion control and the health benefits of eating a large variety of different foods. These bentos seemed 'North Americanized' by comparison. My frustration was compounded by the fact that I know this restaurant has dozens of delicious dishes. I ended up thinking of all kinds of different combinations of their food that would make amazing bento lunches as I crunched away at my salad.

Has anyone else had an experience like this? I found myself wondering if a restaurant could do good business serving properly portioned authentic bento lunches, or whether as a city we're all too used to supersized meals.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jacki, it's pinkishbrown from MUA! I definitely wanted to comment. Bentos in restaurants are *nothing* like the ones you make so prettily. All the japanese places i go to, especially bigger ones like "Ichiban" or Miyako, they have a bento special, and they are just as you described. Big lacquered divided boxes, with the following "usual suspects"
-tempura'd veggies
-crab rangoon/wonton
-rolls of your choice, or sashimi
-sometimes teriyaki chix, etc
-a soup and salad serving beforehand (miso and the house garden with ginger dressing, which i love).

These are NOTHING - repeat - NOTHING - like the bentos traditionally made like you make. And not cutely presented, etc. They are made to appeal to the big appetites of typical restaurants these days, i think.

To be honest, i've been a sushi lover for a long time, and i'd NEVER heard of bentos the way you make them until i started seeing your posts on the other website....totally novel to me!

Jacki said...

Hi Pinkishbrown! It's great to see you over here, thanks for the comments! we don't have anything like Ichiban around here so I didn't really know what the standard was for this sort of thing.

I didn't expect anything similar to what I make or anything cute, because I know that a restaurant doesn't have as much time as I do to prepare a single meal.

But I've seen lots of pictures on Flickr of bentos that people have picked up in Japanese train stations that have 12 or so compartments, each with a different food in a tiny portion, so that's what I think of when I think of 'authentic' restaurant bento. Something simple and elegant with small portions of many foods.

This one reminded me more of like a combo plate you get for supper at a chinese restaurant.

Lyvvie said...

I would send them a letter, friendly like, and say that you expected more form your bento - that although the food was delicious, there was something lacking. Show them some links and get their creativity flowing in the right direction - how could they argue? You'll be providing them with an obvious edge over the competition. No restaurant wants a lackluster review.

BonzoGal said...

Sadly, almost all of the Japanese restaurants in the San Francisco area that offer bentos have the exact same sort of set up. It's the white-bread version of a Japanese lunch, and is usually the "lunch special." That being said, some of them are pretty good bargains for a filling lunch- but without much creativity.

Maybe now that there's a sort of bento craze going on online, the restaurants will figure out that we want more "authentic" type bentos!

Jacki said...

Lyvvie, I've been thinking about it. I am a bit worried about offending them though and it's my very favorite restaurant. I'll have to think of some careful wording :)

Bonzogal, I feel like your phrase "white bread version of a Japanese lunch" really hits the nail on the head. You're right though, it was a good deal, I think $10 for a really healthy lunch.

Anonymous said...

That's a pretty typical Japanese restaurant bento experience for me, and I agree that it's definitely an overseas thing... those fancy train station bento boxes you see with the 12 compartments are definitely either from Japan or from a city that has a very large Japanese population. I think part of the reason for this is that 1. it seems that overseas most people hate eating their food "cold" and 2. people also don't like waiting for food, so it's a bit difficult to take the time to prepare an elaborate bento here and have it ready to sell later in the day since it will be cold, and to serve it hot I think would definitely take more than one pair of hands.

Also, the "Japanese blog that you don't know the name of" is "Kindergarten Bento by Yukinko's Mama" :) :)

I love your bento by the way!!!! My bento blog is at, though it does tend to be rarely updated :)

Jacki said...

Thanks for the translation Eve! I just updated it!