If you’re like me, you probably think of a Bento plate as a Japanese combo meal…
Thanks to some excellent schooling from Leanne Valenti, owner of the recently-opened Bento Picnic on East Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Austin, I now know better. A Bento box is all about the number five. Each box must contain five different colors, tastes, and cooking techniques. This practically guarantees a combination which will be healthy, tasty and interesting—a culinary journey for your palate.
Valenti came by her expertise over many years, traveling to Japan after culinary school to learn the techniques from legends in the art, including the “Godmother/Julia Childs of Japanese cuisine.” She was fascinated by the creativity required to find a perfect balance to every meal, the opportunity to try new techniques, and offer innovative combinations.
She took that education first to Sway (which we have to thank for her glorious crispy shallots which I highly recommend putting on EVERYTHING), and then moved into catering, where she spent three years building up clientele and a menu for her future brick-and-mortar. When the building attached to the commercial kitchen she used became available, she jumped at the chance to open Bento Picnic, and offered first a lunch and now a dinner service.
“I’m grateful that this qualifies as health food, because it definitely qualifies as addictively delicious.”
While Bento Picnic has only been open a few months, they are already getting serious traction, and are doing amazingly well for a new restaurant. The reasons are no surprise. First, Valenti and her staff are absolutely delightful, and their joy and enthusiasm are infectious, making for a delightful dining experience. But above all else is the incredible food.
I’m grateful that this qualifies as health food, because it definitely qualifies as addictively delicious. Here, healthy does NOT mean boring. Even the vegan and vegetarian options are hearty and satisfying, and the variety of flavors makes each meal an exciting new experience. Most items are gluten- and dairy-free, and they can meet pretty much any dietary requirements or restrictions.
Here are a few highlights from the menu:
The Salmon Garden Bento is astoundingly good. The salmon is oak-smoked, and is some of the most delicious I’ve ever had. They have it sourced especially for the restaurant, but apparently it’s become a best-seller for the distributor (small wonder). Accompaniments to the salmon included a dish of kabocha pumpkin (which is chestnut-like in texture) and Yukon potato; kale salad, house-made pickles (watermelon radish, carrot, and cucumber) in a ginger tamari brine; and fried shallots. All of it was delicious.
Tamagoyaki, a dish Valenti picked up from her mentor in Japan, is a variation of tamago (the little egg omelets served often in sushi restaurants). But this tamago is on steroids, with a denser texture. It came with a sweet, tangy smoked ancho sauce which complemented the sweetness perfectly.
Curry is new on the menu, since they can now provide hot food to order. Japanese curry may not be what you expect if you’re accustomed to Indian curry. It’s less spicy, with its own distinctive flavor. We had the curried cauliflower, which was very good.
Bento boxes come with rice, noodles, or garden-style (pumpkin and potato salad with tomato), and you can choose your protein from pork meatball, smoked salmon, roasted chicken, teriyaki tofu and mushroom. Bowls include the curry, a teriyaki bowl, and a quinoa and greens bowl. The full menu is available online.
Unlike many restaurants on Cesar Chavez, Bento Picnic has a few parking spaces available in back, as well as street parking on side streets. Indoor and outdoor seating is available, and the outdoor seating is dog-friendly (our dog very much enjoyed her bowl-licking duties).
You can also get your meal delivered by Favor, if you just can’t bring yourself to leave the house. And many of the cold dishes are available pre-packed to-go, so you can stop by in a rush to grab a great meal. They also still provide catering, as well as online ordering. Ingredients change with the seasons and what’s available locally, so you can expect something new every time you visit.
I can’t recommend Bento Picnic highly enough. With excellent, healthy, local-sourced and lovingly prepared food, a comfortable location, and delightful proprietors, this is definitely an East Austin gem. Writer not responsible for potential addiction to Bento Picnic.
Cover photo courtesy Bento Picnic