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Category Archives: Japanese

Bento Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar

You know that old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” While true, it isn’t an expression that should be applied metaphorically. For instance: restaurants can oftentimes be judged accurately by the image that they present before you even walk in the door. I’ve been known to avoid certain restaurants because of their “cover.” A good example of this behavior is Bento. Despite passing this popular Japanese restaurant twice a day, nearly every day, I never gave serious consideration to stopping in. Part of this is their schedule; they close for three hours between lunch and dinner service. But I mostly avoided it because of the crowd that it tends to attract: fraternity brodogs and the Tempo shorts throng. Every time the door opened it seemed like Dave Matthews Band or Owl City or some musical dreck leaked out. I finally decided to eat at Bento a couple of times over the past week. The pertinent question then is does that old saying about books and covers hold metaphorical weight for Bento? The answer: no, the cover was entirely representative of the restaurant at large.

The interior of Bento is two cramped dining rooms, everything clean and white and sandalwood colored. I am reminded more of a dentist’s office than a Japanese restaurant, but that’s fine. Bento takes their small space and makes the most of it, with a surprisingly large amount of tables and flexibility. The wait staff, at least during the lunch hours in which I visited, was completely young twentysomethings. They are nice and efficient, if a little aloof and ill prepared to fully describe the menu.

A personal marker for quality that I have for Japanese-American restaurants is their execution of soup. Many Japanese soups are miracle balancing acts of texture and flavor. I walked into Bento craving ramen, but certainly not expecting to be able to order any. But the menu did have an Udon noodle soup, so I didn’t hesitate to order it. My waiter brought over a large bowl of steaming-hot clear broth. Inside were lots of thick udon and plenty of sliced scallions and carrots. A particularly unflavorful stick of tempura prawn (or something intended to resemble prawn) was jutting up out of the bowl, but I chose to eat around it. It was a pretty average bowl of udon, at best. The udon themselves were somewhat underdone, not chewy or toothsome but doughy and hard to negotiate. The broth was very light, which worked well on a summer’s day, but it was missing some complexity (read: flavor). While bland, this bowl of soup was too big to finish. It represents a pretty good value for $8, especially if you’re nursing a cold.

I noticed that most everyone in the dining room was opting for Bento’s namesake bento box lunch specials, so I opted for one of my own the next time I came in. The boxes range from $7-$9, and contain a hibachi-grilled meat, your choice of salad or soup, your choice of steamed or fried rice, a handful of edemame and some orange slices. I went with something called the “Bento chicken,” implying a house specialty. The little bites of chicken actually taste considerably like the chicken nuggets at Chick-Fil-A – an initial savory character losing the war of attrition to sweetness – only not fried. I opted for the fried rice, only because it seemed like a novelty (the Japanese don’t traditionally serve fried rice; it’s a Chinese thing). As far as fried rice goes, it might just be the best in Tuscaloosa. The edamame was the best part of the plate; I wish that I had two servings of the slightly briny soybeans to munch on. Bento misses again on the lunch soup; a flavorless broth with spongy sliced mushrooms, diced scallions, and what appears to be egg white somehow lending nothing to the broth apart from a nicely delicate aroma.

Bento has a nice array of sushi choices. The list favors maki (which makes sense, given the clientele), but has a respectable list of nigiri options as well. While there are maki specials for lunch, I did not opt for any sushi, and I didn’t notice any other patrons ordering sushi either. Based on my average-at-best meals at Bento thus far, I don’t think I’m going to shell out for their sushi anytime soon. It’s tough to come back from “meh.”

Bento is a fine-enough lunch option on the Strip, that is if you can tolerate the clientele and the annoying music playing in the dining room. It’s reasonably fast and well-portioned for the price. For me, the food is too uninspired to warrant eating there. Japanese food is subtle, but complex. Bento’s food is not complex, and is about as authentically Japanese as Pita Pit is authentically Greek. If you’re the kind of person who really enjoys Americanized Cantonese places, like Swen for instance, then you should probably check out Bento; I think you’ll enjoy the change-of-pace and find plenty of options agreeable to your palate.

[barry]

Bento is located at 1306 University Blvd, on The Strip, right above Tut’s.

Lunch: Monday-Friday 11am-2pm.
Dinner: Every night 5pm-9pm.

Ichiban Japanese Grill & Sushi

(Or, This Review Is Really Just About Sushi and I Wonder How Many Times You Can Say the Word Sushi in 644 Words?)

Let me start with a story: I once lived in a city without sushi. I found one Japanese restaurant that served ridiculously expensive sushi, and it was terrible, and I ended up spending five months without sushi. I love sushi so much that I resorted to looking at photos of sushi on the Internet, fantasizing about all the sushi I could eat when I came home. It was a miserable existence.

Thanks to Ichiban, it’s not so hard to live in Tuscaloosa when you really love, admire, and adore sushi. Although I still haven’t found a place in town that serves excellent sushi, Ichiban’s food is solid, their service is generally good, and their prices are appropriate. I go there often, with friends or by myself with a book, because the place is also low-key. There’s usually a television on above the sushi bar, but it doesn’t have sound, and on the whole Ichiban is a quiet place in which to carefully mix your wasabi into your soy sauce, making sure that every smidge of green dissolves evenly—no? Just me? My friends have joked that I have it down to a ritual.

On the particular visit that I’m reviewing, I had a spring roll, some shrimp tempura, the scallop tempura maki, and a salmon maki. Everything I’ve ever ordered at Ichiban has been prepared fresh, and the spring roll and shrimp tempura fit that bill perfectly. The spring roll was surprisingly peppery—which I count as a good thing—but came accompanied by a spicy mayonnaise that didn’t match at all. The shrimp was cooked perfectly, with crunchy panko and a light brown sauce on the side. I also managed to steal a bite of my friend’s seaweed salad, which was of standard quality, with a strong sesame flavor that I enjoyed. Ichiban serves large portions of the seaweed salad, large enough to split without fighting over.

I order scallop tempura and salmon maki almost every time I’m at Ichiban so I knew what to expect: both decent rolls, but the scallop tempura could always use a little more scallop and a little less breading. In terms of taste and texture, I’m a big fan of the warm tempura crunch contrasted with the rice and nori. Their sushi rice has a lovely sticky-but-not-too-sticky consistency, the grains holding together without any trace of gluey-ness. The salmon was, well, salmon. I’ve had fishy, gummy salmon and I’ve had creamy salmon that practically melted into the rice, and Ichiban’s salmon falls somewhere in between. It is not wonderful, but it is not fishy at all, and tasty enough that I keep ordering it.

Ichiban also has a small menu, with teriyaki, tapanyaki, and yakitori versions of all the familiar proteins. I haven’t tried this standard Japanese-American fare, but it’s priced well enough and there are lunch combos that include a few menu items. The sushi menu has more exciting options, although I’d stay away from the octopus, which is too chewy. Their nigiri are generously portioned, with that standard-quality fish and that good, good rice. The eel is particularly delicious, as are the vegetarian sushi options. The asparagus roll, with steamed asparagus, almonds, and a light mayo, is one of my favorites. The chef willingly does substitutions, and will leave off the mayonnaise. It’s nice, for stricter vegetarians and vegans especially, to have a couple of interesting, non-fish vegetarian options.

Let me end with a story: I live in a city without many ethnic, vegetarian food choices. In a sea of barbecue, Ichiban is a small island that exceeds my expectations for sushi in Tuscaloosa. Is it the best sushi I’ve ever had? No. Is it the worst sushi I’ve ever had? No—the sushi from the Ferguson Center deserves that honor. Ichiban is a solid restaurant, and the quality of the food does not waver.

[laura]

Ichiban is located at 502 15th Street next to Bama Lanes.  (205) 752-8844

Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday 11am-2pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-9pm; Friday & Saturday 5-9:30pm