In September 2006, Food Network star Rachael Ray arrived on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America to tell viewers about five of her favorite things. One of the novelties that made her list was a bento box, a traditional Japanese lunch box with small compartments or an assortment of dishes. Since Ray’s endorsement, bento boxes have attracted a diverse group of devotees. For dieters, they encourage portion control and variety. For picky kids, an artful bento lunch has a coolness factor far above the cafeteria special. And for working adults, bento boxes are an aesthetic alternative to brown bag lunches.
Many bento box owners invest serious time into packing lunches for themselves or their children, crafting elaborate displays of food. (Last fall, The New York Times featured a California mother who packs her 2-year-old daughter’s bento with flower-shaped sweet potatoes, rice formed into kitten shapes, and boiled eggs shaped like bunnies.) Evansville residents can enjoy the bento tradition without all the work in the kitchen: Several local Japanese eateries, including Iwataya Japanese Restaurant, serve bento box lunches. While they aren’t quite as elaborate as the ones enjoyed by that lucky toddler in California, they offer the opportunity to sample many Japanese foods in one meal — a bonus for those unfamiliar with the cuisine.
My husband and I headed to Iwataya, a North Side staple for more than a decade, on a sunny spring afternoon. A sign instructed us to seat ourselves, so we followed a smooth, black stone path into a private seating area. With a low table and bamboo mats, it resembled a peaceful shrine (and what’s better than a shrine where you can eat?).
A waitress soon informed us that we had, in fact, violated a sort of sacred space — a group dining area available by reservation. She led us to a smaller booth and instructed us to remove our shoes before sitting at the table, which was surrounded on three sides by wooden benches with thin blue cushions. (A note to our female readers: Iwataya also offers typical Western-style table seating, but if you plan to sit in a booth, resist your urge to channel Mad Men when you get dressed that morning. Swinging your legs under a table is far more elegant when you aren’t sporting a slim-fitting pencil skirt.) (Continued on Page 2)
When Iwataya opened in 1999, the restaurant initially drew a crowd of Japanese executives from Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana in Princeton. Since then, its loyal fan base has broadened, and when I visited, quiet fragments of conversation in English and Japanese floated around the small restaurant. A wooden divider separates each booth and table, creating a sense of intimacy without being oppressive. In the back of the restaurant is the sushi bar; although friends have called Iwataya’s sushi some of Evansville’s best, we focused our attention on the bento box menu. (Lunch entrees also are available, and the dinner menu includes seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes.)
Mari Sakamoto, assistant manager at Iwataya, grew up in the major port city of Yokohama, Japan, where she ate bento lunches carefully prepared by her mother. “Most Japanese grow up with bento boxes,” she says, “because they take them to school.” One of Sakamoto’s favorite childhood dishes, yakiniku, is available at Iwataya. The restaurant offers five different bento boxes: chicken, salmon, or beef teriyaki; ginger pork; and yakiniku, a mix of stir-fried beef and vegetables. Each choice comes with miso soup, a small salad, tempura shrimp and vegetables, six sushi rolls, and a bowl of steamed rice.
Our order of hot green tea arrived first, served in large mugs with tea leaves swirling at the bottom. Miso soup with fragile slices of green onion followed. For our bento boxes, we chose chicken teriyaki and yakiniku, but paying too much focus to the meat choice seems an inappropriate description of a bento box. Unlike a typical American restaurant meal, the meat wasn’t the focal point — it filled just one of six compartments in the bento. (If you’ve been advised that a meat serving should be the same size as a deck of cards, this meat serving actually is.)
The teriyaki chicken bore little resemblance to the sodium-laden takeout version I happily consumed at midnight as a college student. The sauce was sweeter, lighter, and accented with cracked pepper. The accompanying items added diverse flavors to the meal, and our favorites were the crab salad rolls, served with a dab of wasabi and slices of pickled ginger, and tempura, fried in a light batter.
Glamour has called bento boxes “the super-cute way to eat healthier,” and Japan-born blogger Makiko Itoh claims the boxes helped her lose 30 pounds by controlling portions. (Itoh, who runs www.justbento.com, also told The New York Times that the boxes reflect Japan’s version of the food pyramid: that every meal should have five colors.) A restaurant’s bento isn’t exactly a light lunch — especially after my bowl of smooth, mellow green tea ice cream. Still, the small portions and numerous compartments demand slow, thoughtful eating. Or maybe that was just my clumsiness with chopsticks.
Next time I visit Iwataya, I may take home a bento of my own. Sakamoto says the restaurant keeps a small stock of lidded bento boxes that customers can purchase for around $30. Popularity of the boxes has increased, she says, and that doesn’t surprise her: Bento boxes have definite novelty allure, and they keep meals interesting. “(People) can eat a little bit of everything,” says Sakamoto, “not just one thing.”
What to Know:
Location: 8401 N. Kentucky Ave. (near U.S. 41 N. and Mount Pleasant Road)
Phone: (812) 868-0830
Prices: Lunch $8-$15, dinner $12-$25
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; dinner, 5-9:20 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Payment: Major credit cards accepted