When I was growing up in Japan, ordering meal deliveries from restaurants was a common way for housewives to take a break and for families to enjoy professionally cooked dishes in the comfort of the home. These deliveries, known as demae, were typically from local eateries that served casual food, such as udon and soba noodles, donburi, or bowls of rice topped with various ingredients, from pork cutlets (katsu-don) to stir-fried chicken and egg (oyako-don).
Young delivery men (I have never seen a delivery woman) carried tray loads of plates and bowls filled with comfort food on the back or side of a bicycle or motorcycle — or, if they were dexterous enough, balanced their tray on one hand while steering their bicycle with the other one. I have to admit I don’t remember actually seeing anyone perform this feat, but the image, probably gleaned from television, has stuck.
The practice has died out over the years, in part due to a shortage of staff at many restaurants. Some restaurants still deliver – notably sushi and unagi (grilled eel) restaurants and those serving Chinese and Indian cuisine – and there is a plethora of delivery-only services that offer fast, casual dishes ranging from pizza to curry.
Take-out meals have long been widely available, particularly at lunchtime, in neighborhoods with office workers, and the food halls of Japanese department stores are teeming with ready-made meals, often bearing the stamped seal of well-known restaurants.
The one thing lacking amid this abundance of ready-made meal choices was the gourmet takeaway and delivery option — high-end restaurant meals that could be ordered in advance to be picked up (or delivered) at one’s convenience.
That is, until the pandemic struck.
While Japan has been alarmingly slow to respond to the spread of the coronavirus, and a lockdown of Tokyo, along the lines of other capitals such as New York, London and Paris, is legally impossible, the government has declared a nationwide state of emergency and urged people to stay at home.
With the likelihood that the state of emergency will be extended for at least another month, a growing number of usually hard-to-book restaurants — faced with more weeks of empty tables — are offering takeaway meals in the form of gourmet bento boxes or à la carte dishes more or less as they would be served in the restaurant itself. The following is a small sampling of those we have had the good fortune to enjoy so far.
The “Special Japanese Bento,” from La Bombance is a beautifully prepared assortment of different tastes and textures.
Although it has a French name, La Bombance, which means “feast,” defines itself as a Japanese restaurant. Hidden in a basement in a nondescript building near Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood, the elegant space that houses La Bombance is difficult to find – the only hint at street level that there is a restaurant there is a small lighted sign with the letter “B” next to an unassuming door.
The chef, Makoto Okamoto, grew up in Niigata Prefecture and trained as a chef of Japanese cuisine after graduating from high school.
The “Special Japanese Bento” we ordered comprised small dishes, including an assortment of sashimi, grilled fish and a sesame tofu. There were two rice dishes – white rice covered in shirasu (whitebait) and clams and seasoned rice with slices of bamboo shoot and hotaru ika (firefly squid). Bamboo shoot and hotaru ika are both seasonal specialties and tasted very fresh and flavorful.
Every dish was of a very high quality seldom offered by bento meals, and was particularly noticeable in the fine ingredients used and the delicate seasoning of each dish. Not being a big rice-eater, I would have been happier with one, rather than two, rice dishes. Having said that, the different toppings made the two rice dishes enjoyable in very different ways.
In addition to the “Special Japanese Bento” (Y4,500), La Bombance is offering two types of sushi meals – “Nigiri-zushi Bento” (Y4,800 for a large bento and Y2,500 for a small one) and “Chirashi-zushi Bento” (Y3,500 for the large and Y2,000 for the small) – as well as a selection of hors d’oeuvres (Y6,000).
Website : http://bombance.com/
Many Japanese restaurants, particularly those exuding a chic but understated elegance, seem to almost deliberately choose locations that are hard to find and Cantera is no exception. The only telltale sign that there is a restaurant in the quiet residential neighborhood of Higashi Azabu where Cantera is located, is an attractive wooden door and, next to it, a menu propped up on a music stand.
The restaurant caters to sake and whisky lovers and serves the kind of food that is easy to nibble on while drinking your favorite tipple, such as cream cheese marinated in miso, fried sesame tofu with a crab sauce and salted pork and watercress salad.
The Y3,000 bento box we ordered, however, offered somewhat simpler fare, such as slices of roast beef and pieces of grilled fish.
At first glance, the bento did not have the appearance of a gourmet meal. Upon closer inspection I decided that the fault lay with the plastic packaging, which resembled the kind of bento box often found piled up high at lunchtime outside restaurants that cater to office workers.
Sure enough, once I had taken a bite of the grilled fish, I was certain the packaging did not do justice to the small but delectable dishes inside. The grilled fish – salmon and Spanish mackerel – was perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of saltiness, and while it would have been better if it had been just off the grill, it still had good texture and flavor after warming it up in the microwave.
Temperature is a problem I often have with bento meals. No matter how expertly cooked, they are usually cold by the time you sit down at home with a nice glass of sake or wine. While the best restaurants try hard to cook the bento just-in-time for pick-up (Shirosaka, profiled next, does an impressive job at this), at best they will be lukewarm when you are ready to tuck into the fried tofu or chawan-mushi (savory egg pudding).
We transferred the dishes that would benefit from re-heating onto a separate plate and enjoyed the many different tastes that came in our Cantera bento. The stir-fried pork and vegetables dish was a taste of China, the quiche and roast duck were French, while the meatball with tomato sauce was a very Japanese take on a European staple. This is a bento meal I would gladly order again, particularly if the contents are changed from time to time.
In addition to the Y3,000 bento, Cantera also offers a Y1,000 bento.
Website : https://cantera.me/
I have long enjoyed the many creative dishes expertly prepared by Hideki Ii, the proprietor-chef of this gem of a restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka.
Chef Ii, a certified sommelier, trained at various Japanese restaurants before heading down under to Sydney where he worked as senior sous chef under renowned Japanese chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, at his eponymous restaurant Tetsuya’s.
He then worked as executive chef at the United Nations’ Japanese ambassador’s residence in New York before opening Shirosaka in 2014.
The restaurant was closed for the entire month of April, but fortunately, launched a number of takeout bento meals.
As someone who has often marveled at Chef Ii’s innovative cooking, I was somewhat surprised by what initially seemed to be simple, straightforward fare offered as bento.
While I liked the look of the grilled beef with hanazansho, the bright green edible flowers of Japanese pepper and the sumibiyaki (charcoal-grilled) chicken with cooked vegetables and seasoned rice, they sounded rather basic compared to what Chef Ii usually has on offer.
And at first sight, the bento boxes looked rather small, raising concerns that they would not be filling enough.
But how wrong I was on both counts.
The charcoal-grilled chicken from Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, was like nothing I had ever tasted before. The chicken was extremely tender and had a deep, smoky aroma that was addictive – you just keep wanting to eat more – and the vegetables were perfectly seasoned. The rice underneath, which was cooked with maitake mushrooms and mukago, a part of yam that looks like a miniature potato, was both firm and fluffy.
After a few bites I remembered that Shirosaka identifies itself as a sumibiyaki kappo – a restaurant that specializes in charcoal-grilled dishes – and that I had always wondered how they managed to serve charcoal-grilled food in the restaurant without generating even the slightest smokiness.
The grilled beef bento was also delicious although, personally, I would have enjoyed it even more if the beef had been slightly more tender and if it had come with a side of vegetables. The hanazansho, a seasonal treat from Wakayama prefecture, was sharp and peppery, adding considerable zing to the beef. The addition of hanazansho definitely elevated the dish above the usual gyudon, a fairly basic bowl of grilled beef on rice, which is particularly popular with hungry salarymen.
Shirosaka’s large sushi roll is next on the list of takeaways to try, not least because I have never had the pleasure of eating a sushi roll that costs Y5,000. Coming from the kitchen of Chef Ii, I am sure it will be like no other sushi roll I have ever experienced.
Shirosaka takeaways :
Grilled beef bento (Y4,500)
Charcoal-grilled chicken bento (Y3,500)
Futomaki large sushi roll (Y5,000)
Orizume selection of various small dishes (Y5,500),
Chirashi-zushi (vinegared rice topped with sashimi and other ingredients, Y4,000)
Fried chicken (10 pieces, Y2,000)