Tanoshi Bento Does an Improved Bento Lunch

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[Photographs: Nicole Lam]

Tanoshi Sushi brought stellar sushi into a dive setting. At Tanoshi Bento, the bento box-themed restaurant next door, the feeling is more like stepping into your Japanese friend's dining room. A server greets you with a cheerful "Welcome!" and ushers you into one of the 12 bamboo-matted seats.

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Chawan-mushi.

Like its sushi counterpart the atmosphere is casual and the space is tiny. Japanese comfort food is on the menu, and Chef Matshuhiro Sugi, with 40 years of experience and a hachimaki bandana to prove it, is making traditional bento and homestyle dishes with organic and seasonal ingredients.

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Fried oysters.

The menu itself reads like your average Japanese take-out menu (much of their business comes from Seamless). But it's in the daily specials where Sugie flexes his culinary muscles. Two to look out for: Chawan-Mushi ($7) and Fried Oysters ($10). The oyster nuggets have a lightly fried crust that balances the soft, briny texture of the oysters. Dip them into the sweet oyster sauce with spicy mustard for something sweet, salty, and pungent all at once. The chawan-mushi, a delicate steamed egg custard eaten throughout the winter, packs a cornucopia of seasonal ingredients into a small clay pot of steamed egg: chicken, shrimp, shitake, bamboo, gingko nuts, spinach, eel, and fish cake, a treasure hunt with every spoonful.

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Salmon teriyaki.

If you want the full bento box experience, get the full bento set, individually plated just-so on a single serving try, kaiseki-style, part of Sugie's effort to bring the concept of bento back to its historic roots and away from the fast food convenience store image it has come to embody.

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Chicken karaage.

Two popular bento dishes are the Salmon Teriyaki ($12.99) and the Chicken Karaage ($12.99). The free-range Alaskan salmon is tenderly cooked, but its teriyaki sauce verges on too sweet. Get the fried chicken karagee, made from Sugie's own recipe. He marinates pieces of organic boneless chicken in a blend of soy sauce, ginger, mirin, and sake for one hour. After rolling them in potato starch, he fries them right before serving. Crunchy on the outside and juicy meat on the inside, it's worth eating solo, but a side of Kewpie mayo infused with plum paste adds cool, sweet, and tangy dimension.

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Pork katsu don.

Sugie also serves various donburi and soba. If you want something heartier, go for the Pork Katsu Don ($11). As with the fried chicken, the pork cutlets are tender and moist with a crispy exterior. Bathed in a blanket of eggs, it sits atop a big bed of white or brown rice alongside onions, pickled daikon, ginger, and scallions.

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Steamed fluke with soba.

One visit yielded an impressive soba special: Steamed Fluke with Soba ($14). Sugie wraps the soba in a fresh fillet of fluke and steams the whole thing before submerging it in a kombu seaweed broth. The fish is meltingly tender, deceptively simple but surprisingly flavorful. The bowl ends with a huge rectangle of seaweed to sink your teeth into.

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Tanoshi Bento is open daily for lunch and dinner, serving the same menu at both times. But the lunch menu is cheaper, and if you arrive before 1 p.m. you have a greater chance of nabbing a seat in the tiny space. Come for the charm, stay for the home cooking done justice.

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