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I was interested to read recently that American food pundits have pronounced rutabagas and bento boxes as the coming culinary fads. Rutabagas? Yawn. If 1999 is going to be the year of the rutabaga, I want out of the food biz now. But bento boxes -- the sexy, sleek lunch boxes of Japan, born in railway stations as artful frames for humble fast food -- pique my curiosity. They're already the rage on the West Coast, I'm told. Imagine how much more appetizing it must be to dine from a glossy, black lacquered box, cunningly compartmentalized, than to grub around in a greasy paper bag of burgers. Even better, you don't have to hide the evidence afterwards.
Combing Houston for bento boxes, I reluctantly bypassed the Container Store and headed out Westheimer to Nara Japanese restaurant, where executive chef and owner Donald Chang offers 14 different "Plate Bento" lunches six days a week. If there's a trend developing, depend on the adventurous Chang to be riding its crest. "Last year, I called them 'bento plates' because we originally served on Continental place settings," he says. "I wondered if customers would be put off by eating out of boxes. But this year we switched over to the boxes, and everybody seems to like them."
You can design your own bento box combination for anywhere from $6 to $10: Choose an appetizer-sized serving of meat or fish for the first compartment, then pick a rice (fried or steamed) and a vegetable (steamed or tempura) for the next two cubbyholes. Nara fills in the remaining blank with oshinko, a mix of pickled vegetables.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
So far, my favorite bento building blocks are the Nara beef roll ($8) and the sauteed scallops ($8), both of which double as appetizers on the dinner menu. Chang's take on the traditional beef roll wraps one thin slice of tender, rare-cooked sirloin around a wedge of cool, buttery avocado, and another around a steaming cylinder of sweet orange yam, instead of the usual carrot or green onions. The prettily halved rolls are topped with a sweet teriyaki glaze. The tender sauteed scallops are standouts: I love the subtle, nutty flavor of the perfectly cooked scallops, in soy butter with garlic and thin circlets of jalapeno so mild I had to double-check their identity.
In either case, I prefer the steamed white rice for my second compartment, which is not to say that the fried rice, a very lightly seasoned mix tossed with bits of very fresh green onions and carrots, isn't good. For the third box, I always opt for the very lightly battered tempura vegetables. The thin fried wheels of carrot and zucchini are cleverly fitted into their niche standing on end, so that they don't steam the crunch out of each other's fried coating; still, an ephemeral pleasure, they're best eaten quickly while piping hot.
For an additional $2, bigger appetites can tack on a lunch-sized salad to the bento plate, or a small serving of miso soup to sip between bites. The generous bowls of udon noodle soup, ranging from $5 to $8, should not be confused with the daintier add-on soups but are an entire lunch unto themselves. Burly wheat noodles, more like extruded dumplings than pasta, float in a lovely, salty miso broth with lots of thinly sliced beef, chicken, shrimp or vegetables.
The interior of Nara itself reminds me of a bento box because it is intricately fitted out like a Japanese temple with jutting tile eaves and the requisite paper lanterns. Through a pair of stone obelisks is the compartment holding the Western-style dining room with perhaps a dozen tables, graced with an oddly Disneyesque mural of grazing deer doubled by a mirrored wall. This box opens into the sushi bar alcove, with comfortable but close seating for another dozen diners. A short corridor leads from the pocket-sized bar compartment back to the Japanese-style private dining room, complete with sliding shoji panels and tatami matting.
The whole seems deceptively bigger than the sum of its parts and certainly larger than it appears from the parking lot of its barn-red shopping strip. But Nara can get quite crowded on weekend nights. Fortunately the restaurant takes reservations for both the dining rooms and the sushi bar, thoughtfulness I greatly appreciate. The staff seems young and almost as hip as Chang himself, which translates to enthusiastic but slightly uneven service. They'll scramble to accommodate the most outlandish request, such as painstakingly duplicating an itemized receipt on the restaurant's fax machine, but they also occasionally allow water and iced tea glasses to bottom out.
The real sushi action is at the bar, of course, where Nara's chefs assemble the usual suspects -- tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp -- into topnotch sushi, sashimi, rolls and hand rolls with friendly, attentive competence. Larger parties can order the same from the more spacious dining room, although this often requires the waiter to shuttle back and forth negotiating the difference between what's wanted and what's on hand. A recent visit found outages of mussels, marinated silver cod, sea eel and even the cream cheese that's included, appropriately, in the Philadelphia roll. We managed to swallow our disappointment along with a half order of impeccable yellowtail sashimi ($8), a six-piece California roll ($5) and a suitably dramatic spider roll ($7), spiky with soft-shell crab claws. We especially enjoyed the sparkly red flying fish roe sushi wrapped in a dark green nori sash ($4) -- "Ooh, it's like eating itty-bitty bubble wrap!" exclaimed a friend -- and "Don's Cajun Crawfish Sushi," Chang's own playful invention sporting deep-fried soft-shell crawfish sprinkled with Cajun-seasoned sauces.