Bento Box in Madison was suggested by a reader so the hubby and I headed in for a Friday night dinner. The food is served cafeteria style, from metal warmers behind a sneeze guard. You simply indicate which of the three meal sizes you would like (daily special, bento, or double bento) and point out your selections to the server.
The staff was friendly and eager to please, helpfully offering samples of anything on the buffet before you committed to ordering it. I sampled the chicken satay as it looked like it had been the most recently refreshed but discovered that it was too spicy for me to contemplate an entire serving of it.
Instead I settled on a bento box (entree, rice or noodles, three sides, and a drink) with Korean beef, white rice, a pork egg roll, miso soup, and a side of "seasoned lily". The hubby opted for the chicken satay, noodles, steamed broccoli, and two spring rolls.
Food in hand, we decided to sit at one of the two booths clustered in a far corner. Upon sitting down we discovered long rips in the vinyl and sagging seats which put the table at an odd height.
Not being generally fond of cafeteria style food, it was with some trepidation that I eyed my plate. Happily, I began with the miso soup and found it to be a bright, lightly seasoned broth with small squares of firm tofu. They offered no real flavor but had a surprisingly nice texture considering my slimey-food aversion. The server had given me the options of seaweed and green onions in my soup. I went with the green onions and was delighted to find that they were crunchy, with a fabulously strong flavor.
Buoyed by the soup, I continued on to the seasoned lily. I had chosen this mostly for its uniqueness and I was curious to try it. As the name implied, the dish consisted of lily flowers cooked and seasoned. The flowers were lightly oiled and bits of green onion were sprinkled throughout with pepper lending a bit of spice. The flowers themselves seemed to have no real flavor and lent mostly texture--an odd mixture of a mild crunch and just enough slipperiness to squeak against my teeth. It wasn't bad, but neither was it outstanding. A status that was in no way improved by the lukewarm temperature.
The Korean beef suffered a similar fate of having been left in the serving tray too long. The beef slices were thick and sweet with just a hint of sauce remaining. The onions were near carmelizing, soft and sweet, but the thin strands of carrots were lost in the sweetness of the sauce. The white rice I had selected turned out to be a very short grained sticky rice which lent an odd mouthfeel, especially when combined with the borderline too-sweet flavor of the beef and veggies. When served fresh, I imagine this dish has real potential. Served lukewarm and partially congealed however? It was somewhat edible but not enticing.
One of the hazards of arriving later in the evening is not just that food may have sat on the warmer for a bit too long, but also that some items have sold out completely. The egg rolls and spring rolls had sold out when we arrived, but we were told that they would be made to order and brought out. After some confusion over spring rolls vs egg rolls, both the hubby and I had our complete dishes.
The pork egg roll was small with a golden exterior. The interior, containing shredded cabbage, carrots, and minuscule bits of pork was doughy and the entire egg roll tasted mostly of doughy wrapper and pepper. The sweet and sour sauce served with it, however, was quite nice. Tangy and thin it was a true sauce, not the overly cloying syrup which often carries the same name.
My husband was happier with his meal (shown at the top of the post). As suspected, the chicken satay was much fresher and had a deep flavor which built to a slow burn. He enjoyed the steamed broccoli and was also impressed with the sweet and sour sauce.
Bento Box offers a menu which rotates daily and their choices tend to skew lighter than many asian style eateries. The menu is a nice blend of food choices unusual to western palates (seasoned lily, kimchee) and "safe" options (fresh fruit, green salads). The ability to sample dishes allows you to safely explore new items. Various bento sizes accommodate all manner of appetites and an impressive drink menu of "coffee blast" and "bobo snow/milkshakes" make for tasty treats.
Unfortunately, as with any cafeteria style eatery, timing is everything. Dishes which have been sitting on a warmer, no matter how appetizing they were to begin with, lose much of their appeal. I would not be adverse to going again, if someone else suggested it, but for fresh Asian styled food, I think I'll head elsewhere.
Total for the meal: $21.70 (Includes two bento box meals)
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