Obentos is the brainchild of Andrew Stevenson, who was inspired to create a restaurant after being served a delicious bento box lunch on a Japanese train years ago. Stevenson’s Japanese mother likely influenced him too; however, the concept and menu here are thanks to the sage wisdom of Morio Sakayori, the consulting Japanese chef.
In Japan, the word bento commonly signifies a ‘boxed meal’; these are usually sold in restaurants at lunchtime for those dining in, and they are justly famous for the beautiful presentation of their dishes. The boxes at Obentos are no-fuss and simple, eaten as set meals in a dining room or as takeaway. You won’t find better.
The restaurant has clean wooden surfaces and a menu that’s diverse enough to warrant subsequent visits, yet not so large as to confuse – it even accommodates vegans. The lunch bonus of free soup or a salad increases the daytime bustle, while hot box meals (46-68RMB) come in flavours that make for easy pickings, such as teriyaki chicken (52RMB) or eel kabayaki (68RMB) – although both are on the sweet side.
One part of the menu is labelled ‘classic’ while the other is titled ‘gourmet’ and uses costlier ingredients. Fish is imported, as are the crucial Japanese flavours, but everything else is local. Each box comes with its own complements, like ohitashi, a Japanese preparation of blanched spinach in sesame sauce, accompanied by an egg roll, a sweet omelette of sorts.
There is nothing new or risky about the choices offered here, such as salmon variations (60RMB) that seem to fly off the counters. But everything seems to be tinged with sweetness, including the tofu (46RMB) or beef sukiyaki (56RMB), a great winter warmer. Each kit comes with a choice of rice, including the house variety that’s flavoured and easy to down, or a pack of ‘cleansing cole slaw’ that sounds more like a spa treatment than lunch.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that a small salad like the fresh tofu salad (28RMB/48RMB) is a good starter for your bento meal. It’s huge. A pillow of silken tofu blobs over a field of greens. Nestled within are hidden bombs of strong, sweet pickled sushi ginger, or packs of sesame spinach, sunflower seeds, sweet tomatoes and even sweeter carrots, as well as shreds of loose bonito fish shavings, all bound with a sesame dressing.
Other options include a Japanesestyle sweet potato salad (20RMB) that’s actually whipped with splices of crunchy vegetables worked into the mash and served cold. Stirfried udon noodles are like a sweet and sour noodle dish straight from anywhere but Asia. Its flavours seem geared towards those who like their Chinese food adapted.
Things are still new and this light meal is not necessarily a bargain by any means. But given the idea of Obentos and its easy-to-like style and taste, this recent opening is a very welcome addition. Meal for two around 160RMB. Lillian Chou.