The prevailing fast casual dining trend is a tricky business. Sometimes, the disparity between a $15 lunch and a glorified cafeteria experience begs the question: Why not pay a few bucks more for personalized table service at a restaurant known for its speed? Or what about ordering takeout from your favorite sit-down instead? The reality is that you have the power to make a fast casual experience out of any meal. Paying for convenience is only acceptable if the food lives up to its price tag; otherwise, you're buying into a gimmick, not a thoughtful restaurant concept.
Artisan Bento in Bankers Hill is smart right out of the box at less than a month old. A sister restaurant to nearby Azuki Sushi - known for its local, seasonal mantra - means that both places get to draw from the same pool of ingredients. Bulk ordering and subsequent, reasonable pricing are two benefits of this system, but its most pleasant side effect is freshness, because frequently used items must constantly be replenished.
True to the fast casual formula, you order at the counter from a simple, customizable menu divided into box, bowl and bao bun categories. The create-your-own bento comes with your choice of protein: ground chicken skewers flecked with edamame; flavor-packed ginger pork; or lightly fried, pillowy tofu. Miso salmon costs $1 more, and sashimi tacks on an additional $2.95.
The difference between a regular bento ($9.95) and the deluxe ($13.95) is an additional side, plus dessert. You don't want to miss the side sweet potato salad with roasted slices of the starchy vegetable topped with a tangy Kewpie mayonnaise and yogurt sauce. Seaweed salad with sashimi is another winner, as are flavorful, marinated cucumbers, if not a tad on the salty side. Both chocolate mousse and caramel apple cake were thoroughly enjoyable, while being light and reasonably portioned.
All boxes come with palate-cleansing, bite-sized pieces of Fuji apple, marinated until delightful with citrus and mint; flawless, sticky multigrain rice; and seasonal miso soup. The knowledgeable and friendly woman at the register revealed that in Japanese households, the soup contains whatever's available that day. So, our stateside, ubiquitous tofu is substituted with diced sweet potatoes, for now.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of eating ramen is its variety of ingredients, presented in distinctive sections on the surface of a unifying broth. Suffice to say I was skeptical of the cold ramen bowl ($9.95) with seasonable vegetables and yuzu citrus sauce, which wound up mirroring the experience I love so much despite its major differences. The noodles were especially pleasant, well seasoned and slurp-able - not at all the flavorless clump the skeptic in me had imagined. Plus, the refreshing dish was nicely contrasted with a side of hot miso soup.
More standouts included the albacore sashimi as part of a bento, delicately seared with a silky center. The don rice bowl ($8.95) couldn't have been any better with julienned yellow pepper and cucumber, sliced avocado and savory, stewed enoki mushrooms that bridged the gap between hot and cold elements of the dish. Mama's pork bao bun ($5.75) was another hit, bursting with crisp jalapeno, mint, marinated daikon radishes and carrots atop sweet pork in the "Japanese slider." Every dish and detail we tried over two visits was flavor packed and thoughtful. If anything, Artisan Bento could lay off the salt, especially with the ginger pork.
The environment here is chic and minimalistic, but comfortable.
A living wall and table top succulents are fresh touches, and there's even a mini-Japanese grocery with imported teas and treats.
But the real test of Artisan Bento came when I walked in and placed an order to go. During the dinner rush, it was swiftly prepared in under 10 minutes and handed to me in a recycled paper shopping bag. I tried not to get too excited before revealing its contents at home; but lo and behold, everything was on point and as if I was eating it there the day prior. Not to mention, all of the containers used were eco friendly - including the rad, disposable bento - with biodegradable utensils and napkins neatly bound to each box by a rubber band. No detail is overlooked at this joint.
Artisan Bento is fulfilling, not because of hearty portion sizes, but from its ornate presentation and varied style of eating that I've come to associate with Japanese food. A couple of intense bites of this-and-that liberates taste buds, allowing them to flirt with a range of flavors versus committing them to a monotextured, bulky something-or-other. Variety is the house spice here. I want more.
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.