By Sylvester Grahame
I had lunch with a friend last week at Bento Japanese Lunchbox on Mariscal Sucre. When Michael noticed that Matthew Hart was the chef she remarked, “I wish I could play guitar and cook as well as he can.” I assured her she just might be able to if she practices hour after hour, day after day, and year after year with the same dedication, relentless energy and determination that makes Hart an accomplished singer/songwriter and an excellent chef.
Thomas Edison was right. Innovation is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration — and this holds particularly true in the kitchen. All culinary arts are guided by both art and science, and it is only through an understanding and adherence to both principles that success is achieved.
For example, Bento’s ramen ($7 – $8) took Hart over two years to perfect. The house-made noodles must be alkaline, a tricky process, to maintain the proper elasticity and rich color that defines a good ramen. Both characteristics are important properties, and an essential undertaking for a first-rate restaurant wishing to appeal to a knowledgeable and discriminating audience. This important measure is a yardstick that defines Hart’s fine cuisine. Presentation is important, and Bento’s composes its offerings beautifully; but it is technique — the quality of the cooking — that matters most.
We began our lunch with a plate of Shrimp Tempura ($8). The rice flour and cornstarch breading was perfectly cooked, the shrimp casting a light amber that glowed like fine Inca gold and tasted like the briny little bugs that they are. The accompanying salad was a collection of julieanne vegetables tossed in a light vinaigrette that was an ideal counterpoint to the shrimp.
Our entree was a shared portion of Karaag (Japanese fried chicken); a particularly pleasant surprise. ($8) The marinade, a combination of soy, ginger and scallions, gives the entire dish a fresh and invigorating flavor adding a sweet and salty nuance to the North American staple.
The open-air kitchen allows diners a floor show of activity punctuated with pleasant aromas, bright textures, and lively flavors that make this an exceptional place to dine.
Of particular note is the work of an up and coming talent, Cleven James Dahill. His nigiri is a pleasant combination of starch, vinegar, and fresh raw fish, a simple but essential preparation that places him well on his way to becoming a first-tier sushi-chef. It was a joy watching his knife flash as he supervised the servers caring for the steady flow of hungry folks anxious to enjoy Matt’s fine cuisine.
The restaurant scene in Cuenca is changing rapidly and new places are appealing to more educated diners who understands and appreciate fine cooking. Bento Japanese Lunchbox is just such a place.
If your dining tastes run to pizza and burgers, Bento’s is not for you. However, if you’re looking for a dining experience where food is more than simply fuel, you’ll appreciate the well-crafted expression of culinary art and at Bento’s Japanese Lunchbox.
Bento Japanese Lunchbox is without question one of my favorite restaurants in Cuenca. It upholds a standard of dedication to providing healthy, well composed, and simply delicious food in a casual setting that suits the people of Cuenca quite well. The staff of Bento is to be commended for their dedication, and Matthew Hart is due a hearty thank you from all who enjoy fine cooking from a talented chef.
Bento Japanese Lunchbox: Mariscal Sucre 14-93 and Col. Talbot; Phone: 098-945-6051; Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. then 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Facebook
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