By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
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A second section of the box brought meaty salmon strips, each wrapped in an opaque sheath of pickled or salted white seaweed (ugo). On the side were thin snippets of freshwater eel, roasted and lightly glazed in sauce made in-house with eel broth, sweet soy, and whatever else Cory puts in to give it a salty/savory/seductive flavor. Also squeezed into the square: a slice of lightly breaded, deep-fried shrimp tamago — a traditional sweet egg omelet often served as nigiri, but here it also contains potato and is served warm and lusciously custardy.
The final compartment holds rice molded into a decorative floral shape. On this occasion, it was flavored with shiitake mushrooms and hints of eel, with wisps of pickled daikon on top; other times, the grains might boast notes of portobello and sardines. These are not random matchups but rather the results of a knowing chef playing tastes off one another like dueling banjos (or, more aptly, dueling kotos).
The covered bowl of soup contained a dashi-based stock with parsnip, soft cubes of egg tofu, and the cress-like herb mitsuba, or Japanese wild parsley (most produce used at Naoe is organic). The price for the bento box and soup is only $26, perhaps the best American restaurant value since David Chang debuted Momofuku in New York.
We weren't finished. The chef pinched warm rice, ovally molded it in his hands, melded some melting Scottish salmon belly on top, and lightly lacquered it with syrupy shoyu-based sauce. We also tried another silver-skinned Japanese fish — the kohada — and a chilled slice of the shrimp tamago (custardy even when cold), both prepared similarly to the salmon: atop rice and brushed with shoyu. The meal was capped with a complimentary taste of cantaloupe sprinkled with sweetened rice vinegar.
Naoe had some serious timing issues in the beginning. Visualize one man preparing and plating 17 bento boxes (68 compartments) with multiple ingredients, one at a time, while also filling countless requests for nigiri. Then imagine being customer number ten or 14 or — yikes! — 17. Bentos often took up to an hour to arrive. Now a new seating system should somewhat remedy this problem. Guests making dinner reservations (accepted only through opentable.com) will have options for 7:30, 8:30, 10:30, or 11:30. Ostensibly, the 7:30 and 10:30 crowds will be nibbling their final nigiri as the respective replacement groups filter in. Still, one chef is one chef, so don't come here expecting quick bites before a show; if you're an impatient sort, you might not want to come at all. For everyone else, Naoe presents one instance where truly great things come to those who wait. But you already knew that, right?