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Lunch Crowd

Amid lush surroundings, 2 eateries serve tasty bento--Japan's package deals.

January 29, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — The Japanese have developed the casual bento, or boxed lunch, into an art form. You can get bentos, in plain paper boxes or on plastic replicas of lacquered trays, at department stores and train stations in Japan. In Orange County, the best bentos are served at Koto and Kitayama, two upscale Japanese restaurants.

Koto is a Japanese oasis in a desert of corporate office buildings behind John Wayne Airport. Its beautifully landscaped grounds include a Japanese garden, a fish pond and a beautiful stone fountain.

Most of the diners at this spare, elegant restaurant are Japanese-speaking, and once inside, you'd swear you'd crossed the Pacific. A team of kimono-clad waitresses serves diners in the ample main dining room (there's also a sleek sushi bar). The best tables are next to panoramic windows that afford a view of that garden.

Koto has great daily lunch specials for $7.95, but for another $2 you get the Koto bento. The more elaborate shokado bento, which is $6 more, has larger portions, better sashimi and a couple of added delicacies.

A friend and I tried both. First the waitress brought steaming cups of hojicha, a caffeine-free tea brewed from wheat. Not long after, our bentos arrived, in compartmentalized black and red lacquer trays that look like jewel boxes.

We started with the Koto bento, and my friend, who is Japanese, demonstrated bento etiquette. First we dug into the sashimi, perfectly trimmed slices of fatty tuna and tuna belly, dipping them in soy sauce laced with green horseradish. Then we had delicious, lightly battered shrimp, zucchini and green bean tempura, which we dipped in a briny sauce clouded with grated white radish.

Another compartment contained nimono (literally, "boiled things"). Inside were nuggets of yam, lotus root, carrot, bamboo shoot and chicken, all tasting faintly of the mushroom-flavored stock they had been simmered in. Toward the end, we went after a warm vinegar-dressed dish of spinach and enoki mushrooms, which was tucked into a little aluminum foil cup. This bento also came with a California roll, a rubbery slice of fish cake and two delicious, pingpong ball-sized corn and pumpkin croquettes.

In the shokado bento, you get the same items plus a terrific piece of miso-marinated broiled black cod, some strongly flavored mackerel, fancy fish cakes and, this month only, two Japanese New Year's dishes--boiled black soybeans and herring roe.

With both bentos you get a cup of hot miso soup stocked with tofu and kombu seaweed and a big bowl of rice. The Japanese gourmet might be annoyed, though. In a true Japanese bento box, the rice must be served inside the tray.

Koto is moderately priced for lunch. Koto bento is $9.95. Shokado bento is $15.95.

*

Kitayama has an altogether different style. From the outside, it looks like a Japanese temple. The dining room is mostly white fir, tastefully decorated with paper lanterns, expensive screens and colorful Japanese stoneware.

Ask for a booth, where you will be seated on a fluffy Japanese cushion, or (better yet) for one of the private tatami rooms, available at no charge. Most tables in the main room afford a view of the transcendent garden that surrounds the restaurant. This place might be called the very picture of serenity--if it weren't so noisy and crowded at lunch.

Kitayama's prize bento is also called shokado bento, but 24 hours' notice is required. You'll get a very large lunch tray filled with delicacies equal to almost anything you'd find in Tokyo--at a price that would barely buy a shot of Scotch there. The tray has no compartments but holds various small dishes. Served with the tray are three or four covered dishes, each hiding a separate course.

Here, as with all Japanese lunches, you also start with a steaming cup of tea--in this case, it's standard-issue Japanese green.

One day my tray came stocked with a mild galantine of chicken flavored with Japanese basil, a fishy piece of glazed broiled salmon, rectangles of a sweetened egg cake, rubbery cubes of yam paste (konyakku), fried shrimp, a rather neutral crab fritter, a deep-fried stuffed shiitake mushroom, top-notch tuna and halibut sashimi and tender pieces of stewed pork topped with grated horseradish.

Another day, the bento contained completely different items, including cooked bamboo, stewed pumpkin wrapped with bacon, smoked salmon wrapped around a bunch of radish sprouts, a slimy seaweed called mozuku, chicken and daikon radish simmered in a dark, spicy soybean paste, herring roe and an extremely fancy-looking fried shrimp breaded with red, white and green rice crumbs.

Both days, the trays were accompanied by separate dishes containing rice, miso soup and pickled nappa cabbage. For dessert, Kitayama throws in a cooling coffee jelly, an oddment in tiny brown cubes.

These bentos are far fancier than the box of chicken, rice and pickles a Japanese worker grabs on the platform while waiting for a train. I wouldn't call either of them more satisfying than a train station bento, but they are a true glimpse into Japanese culture, at a price anyone can afford.

Shokado bento is $15.

BE THERE

Kitayama, 101 Bayview Place, Newport Beach. (714) 725-0777. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-10:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

Koto, 4300 Von Karman Ave., Newport Beach. (714) 752-7151. Daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. All major cards.

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