Thinking outside the box: Reimagining the bento, Japan's classic quick lunch

One different version of a bento is this $15 lunch from Cuba Libre, providing a range of tastes and a dessert.
One different version of a bento is this $15 lunch from Cuba Libre, providing a range of tastes and a dessert.
Posted: February 03, 2011

CONSIDER the Japanese bento box.

The penultimate takeaway-lunch option in Japan, these snazzy, compartmentalized boxes contain a tapas style, easy-to-eat feast that provides sustenance to schoolchildren, factory workers and diners on the go.

When Morimoto chef Hiroki Fujiyama thinks about bento boxes, he remembers his childhood in Kyoto, when his mother would pack a bento for him to take to school and for his father to take to the office. Typically filled with four or five home-cooked items eaten at room temperature, a traditional bento might have rice, a small salad, a piece of fried chicken or grilled fish, and a rolled egg omelet.

"A bento is convenient to eat, easy to carry and good for when you're in a hurry," said Fujiyama. At Morimoto on Chestnut Street, bento items appear as bites of Japanese tapas, savories often served at an izakaya, or Japanese-style pub. The morsels are as beautiful to look at as they are delicious to eat, in keeping with the Japanese tradition of eating first with the eyes.

At Zama Restaurant, on 19th Street, Chef Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka serves both traditional and modern Japanese "bento bites" at lunch - tasty treats like miso-marinated black cod, shrimp tempura and chicken katsu served along with edamame, house salad, miso soup and rice.

"Bento needs to be easy to eat and sort of comfort food," said the chef. "Eating a bento is like taking a 'little bit of home' with you wherever you are."

Bento bites are a great idea - but why limit this convenient food delivery method to Japanese fare? We asked a few chefs around town what their idea of a perfect bento would be. They got creative with savory results.

Southwestern Bento

When diners ask for tacos and burritos at the newly opened Kokopelli Restaurant, on Chestnut Street, Chef Gina Rodriguez has some gentle educating to do.

"Southwestern cuisine uses many of the same ingredients found in Mexican cuisine, but the flavor combinations are more subtle," she said. "Our menu isn't traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex."

Rodriguez, a sixth-generation Mexican-American raised north of Tucson, Ariz., brings the discipline of classic French culinary training to the dishes she's serving at Kokopelli. Some of the menu items she resurrects from her childhood, like the calabacitas, a savory side of stewed squash, tomatoes and cotija cheese. Others she pays homage to with a modern twist, like filling tamales with shrimp in a garlic cream sauce or wild mushrooms with caramelized onions and green chili sauce.

For her Southwestern bento, Rodriguez includes the calabacitas, a tamale with braised beef in a pasillo chili sauce, a piquillo pepper filled with spicy shrimp and a salad of grilled romaine with marinated cherry tomatoes. For dessert? Perhaps a bite of orange flan.

Jewish Deli Bento

Michael Spector channels the comfort food of his Elkins Park childhood at Delicatessen, his cheery emporium of all things Jewish deli on Chestnut Street.

Faced with the challenge of equipping a takeaway bento with a bissel of this and a bissel (Yiddish for "little") of that, he came up with not one, but three ideas worth a menschen. "After all," he noted, "what is a bento box if not a very small deli tray?"

Delicatessen Bento: Small hot pastrami with mustard on rye; pickles; coleslaw; a bit of chopped liver and onion; a latke with applesauce; a stuffed cabbage roll; and a sliver of Jewish apple cake.

Sunday Morning Bento: Bagel; a few slices of nova; a bit of whitefish salad; pickled herring; cucumber; onion; tomato; capers; scallion cream cheese; a cheese Danish and the Sunday paper.

The Bubbe Bento: Matzoh-ball soup; brisket with gravy; potato kugel; carrot tzimmes; a slice of chocolate babka; a nice piece of fruit; and, of course, a second bento box for later.

All-American Bento

Chef Jennifer Carroll, of 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert, at the Ritz-Carlton, on Broad Street, is a Philly native whose stint on "Top Chef" brought her into the national spotlight. She adds some local flair to her bento concept, inspired by the Five-Bite Lunch on the menu at 10 Arts:

_ Chef Jen's Warm Soft Pretzel with creamy cheddar sauce, jalapeño jam, Dijon mustard.

_ A shot of Smoked Heirloom Corn Chowder.

_ A choice of two Minis - a striped bass fish burger topped with fennel, oven-dried tomato and saffron aioli; a lobster roll, Maine lobster salad on a toasted bun; a cheeseburger made with Pineland Farms ground sirloin; or a hot dog.

_ Chef Monica's Mini-Cupcake of the Day.

_ A bottle of Downingtown-brewed Victory Beer, or a soft drink or iced tea.

Cuban Bento

Cuba Libre's consulting chef Guillermo Pernot came up with his Cuban Bento in 2009, a lunch special that changes weekly and includes three flavor bites along with dessert. Priced at $15, the lunchtime bento packs a one-two punch - allowing diners short on time to munch expediently while providing an express tasting of the island's varied flavors.

"Cuban cuisine incorporates many influences from around the world, including African, Asian and Caribbean," said Pernot. "Our bento box is a way to experience a range of tastes and have a little dessert, all within a lunch hour."

Typical munches might include Camarones y Calamares Mixto, a flavorful salad of fried spiced shrimp and calamari tossed with lettuces, grilled poached pears and sugarcane vinaigrette; or a portion of Churrasco a la Cubana, grilled skirt steak served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and a rosemary mushroom escabeche salad.

The Good For You Bento

The new Freshii, in the Residences at the Ritz, on Penn Square, is home to all things fresh, healthy and delish. Envision a bento with half a whole-wheat wrap, such as the Recharge, made of Freshii mix, grilled tofu, avocado, mango, black beans, sweet corn, cilantro, diced tomatoes and salsa; a small scoop of brown rice; yogurt parfait with walnuts and cinnamon; and fresh apple slices.

We feel healthier already.

Viva La France Bento

Australian-born chef N. Kevin Levett brings modern French fare to the bento and to Liberte, the sexy new lounge restaurant in the lobby at Sofitel Philadelphia, on 17th Street. His menu, which emphasizes locally sourced ingredients and seasonal fare, offers bento-worthy bites like pepper and goat cheese tartines, house-made charcuterie and imported artisan cheeses.

His French-style bento would hold updates on some classic dishes: Wild Mushroom Consommé; Seared Tuna Niçoise; Duck Cassoulet and Tart au Citron.

Parisian Sweets Bento

Executive pastry chef Cedric Barberet, at Walnut Street's Le Bec-Fin, is in love with the French macaroon, the airy, almond-flavored cookie currently all the rage at Parisian patisseries.

His perfect bento box would be filled with five different flavors - lavender, raspberry rose water, Earl Grey and citrus, pistachio kirsch, and spiced chocolate. Natural food coloring makes these macaroons pop with shades of lavender, red and green.

Businessman Bento

Power lunches don't have to take all day. Thomas Allen, general manager of Morton's the Steakhouse Philadelphia, on Walnut Street, devised the perfect protein-rich bento to help push that deal to closure: two pieces of shrimp cocktail; a Morton's Steak Sandwich (filet mignon with sautéed onions on ciabatta); and a Key lime tart.

All Chocolate Bento

Buddakan's new chef, Mark Hellyar, fresh from a two-year stint in Tokyo, has been busy adding some new menu items to the Old City restaurant's mod- Asian menu, with the emphasis on bringing more authentic Chinese flavors to the table in dishes like the black pepper steak - a juicy rib-eye, wok-tossed in a black-pepper sauce spilling out of a delicate, crispy bird's nest.

One dish he won't change any time soon is Buddakan's chocolate bento, a segmented homage to all things cocoa. Although the box can change slightly, typically diners can mine it for sweets like warm chocolate cake, white mocha pot de creme, chocolate caramel Napoleon, dark chocolate dusted almonds, bittersweet sorbet and dark chocolate panna cotta.