Sunday, November 18, 2018
Dining

Restaurant review: Will Bento stand out in downtown St. Petersburg’s crowded pan-Asian scene?

Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi is a quick-service pan-Asian restaurant founded in 2002 in Gainesville. The chain is now Orlando-based and has quickly crept across Florida, with 11 locations from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The first one was a 40-seat restaurant in a plaza a few blocks west of the University of Florida. It’s a concept that makes complete sense in a college town: fairly healthy dishes, totally customizable and accommodating of dietary restrictions or compulsions, transportable with minimal spillage, punchy Asian flavors and a price point that keeps dishes roughly $9 to $11.

The concept is a little like Pei Wei Asian Diner, a chain created by P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in 2000 so they could compete in the fast-casual restaurant space (although at the end of 2017, Pei Wei separated from P.F. Chang’s and rebranded as Pei Wei Asian Kitchen). There’s Mongolian beef next to Thai red curry next to classic tekka maki, all of it with more of a to-go orientation.

Bento, which really means a single-portion takeout or home-packed Japanese meal commonly divided in its container into different sections (think TV dinners, only more high-design and less Salisbury steak), held its grand opening in St. Petersburg on Oct. 5. It’s on the ground floor of the new AER apartment building next to Simple Greek and just blocks from all those hungry students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. It’s about 2,700 square feet and 80 seats including the outdoor patio seating, but on a couple of recent visits the order counter was working double-time to service mostly takeout food.

Owners Jimmy and Johnny Tung have had their eye on the St. Pete market for some time. That’s no surprise — this area is a restaurant candyland these days. But let’s pause for a minute. Bento traffics in cuisines that range from China to Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand. In the pan-Asian space, downtown St. Pete already has Lemon Grass, Hawkers, 9 Bangkok, Sake 23 (what until recently was Souzou), Pin Wok & Bowl and Asie. For Japanese there is Buya, the Lure and Sushi, Inc.; for Thai there’s Chiang Mai and Sab Café; for Vietnamese there’s La V; for Chinese you’ve got China Kitchen. And that’s just off the top of my head. Oh, and for poke bowls there’s the new Pacific Counter.

In order to compete ably with all that, you must be faster, cheaper, cooler or better. Bento is plenty fast, and the to-go accoutrements are top-notch (strong plastic containers with tight-fitting lids, plastic-wrapped fork-knife-napkin combos with a little soy sauce packet — though it yields an awful lot of garbage, something we need to bear in mind with this rising tide of takeout). It is not cheaper: Rolls are comparable to the places listed above; poke bowls ring in right at Pacific Counter prices; Thai and Chinese classics are slightly more expensive than at those places mentioned above.

So now it’s down to cooler and/or better. Bento is bright, with floor-to-ceiling windows, contemporary light fixtures and chairs that hint at midcentury modern classics. The order counter is a study in red lacquer with a dramatic black side wall that is festooned with Katakana and Hiragana characters (or maybe they’re just cool squiggles; I'm not a student of Japanese). It’s an appealing and pleasant space, but with lots of people loitering and waiting for their to-go order, it doesn’t feel like a place you’d camp out for long.

I found solid offerings in nearly every category on the menu. Solid, but nothing that scaled new heights or brought the unexpected. If I have one overall criticism, it’s that dishes have too much sauce, sauces that were frequently a little too sweet. A Szechuan chicken bento box ($10) made me wish for more restraint on the deep brick-colored sauce so the snow peas, broccoli and white-meat planks had more room to shine. The rest of the sectioned bento contained the classic iceberg salad with the ginger dressing, a dome of white rice, a tangle of soy-bronzed lo mein, short lengths of nicely done fried Szechuan green beans and a passel of fried wonton skin triangles drizzled with a sweet sauce. A fair amount of food for $10, and good variations of flavor and texture, but nothing knocked my socks off.

Udon noodles, those fat, toothsome wheat flour noodles that eat like a meal with just a little broth, make for a good noodle bowl base (other options are lo mein or mini udon). We tried one in a Korean beef dish ($11), the dominant flavor a pungent, but sweet, gochujang sauce studded with lengths of red bell pepper, onion and bits of scallion.

I also worked my way through a series of classic sushi rolls. A sushi combo box contains an eight-piece California roll and a choice of two four-piece classic rolls for $11, a fairly good deal, but from a Mexican roll (tempura shrimp, avo, cream cheese, eel sauce) to a spicy tuna, the rolling was straightforward and the flavors pedestrian. (A nice touch: You get one complimentary sauce per roll, bowl or box, so you can jazz up your sushi with more than soy or wasabi.)

We went from a paucity of poke to plenitude in just six months in Pinellas County. Bento essentially takes all the building blocks from the noodle bowls, bento boxes and sushi, offering them in a mix-and-match format over white rice, brown rice or mixed greens, with a phalanx of zippy sauces and a nice array of crunchy toppings (nice to see togarashi and furikake, both seasoning blends that add vim to anything). There are plenty of appealing protein options here, from spicy tofu to katsu-style fried chicken, and a small handful of signature bowls with well-conceived assemblies of ingredients.

I think the location of Bento is fortuitous, with a captive audience of apartment dwellers soon to be above and USF St. Pete students down the street. It remains to be seen whether it will stand out from the crowd of similar concepts in this heated market.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.

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