My lunchboxes were some of my favorite possessions when I was growing up. Every semester or so, I would get a new one. Some were plain, square boxes with lid and handle. Others were decorated with cartoon figures. Every one of them always contained good stuff that my mother packed in the morning. Each day offered a gleeful surprise of neatly wrapped sandwiches, fruits and drink.
The lunchbox is actually part of America's culture. Who can forget the World War II posters of "Rosie the riveter" building a ship, with her lunchbox beside her. I recently saw a photograph of workers who built the Empire State Building. They were casually eating lunch while sitting on a wide steel beam suspended in mid-air by a crane's cable, about 40 stories up. They were eating out of their lunchboxes.
Japanese culture also has its "lunchbox mystique." It is called a "bento box," about the size of large, thick book and compartmentalized into sections to keep the different foods from touching. Many of today's bento boxes are ornate and lacquered to a fine gloss.
Fast food is often thought of as an American innovation, characterized by McDonald's and others. Truth is, the concept of fast food has been around forever. The bento box is a key example. The tradition of bento boxes goes back to the late 12th century in Japan, when travelers carried cooked and dried rice for quick snacks. Samurai would eat out of their bento boxes for a surge of energy before going back to battle. Growing in popularity, bento boxes became part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
When trains crisscrossed Japan in the 19th century, bento boxes were sold at train stations. Today, bento boxes are sold in convenience stores and at airports. Students often carried bento boxes to school, just like the lunchbox I carried. But, after World War II, Japanese students were provided food at school and the use of bento boxes declined. Recently, they have resurged in popularity.
There are many different kinds of bento boxes, many of them featuring local cuisine. What is produced in one part of Japan may not be produced in others. One of the most popular is Makunochi bento, which includes broiled salmon, egg and dried ume fruit.
Roppongi, an Asian Fusion restaurant located in La Jolla, offers a bento box on its lunch menu. There may be other restaurants that do so but this is the only one I've discovered. Roppongi's bento comes in a traditional compartmentalized box, which holds salmon teriyaki, ahi, shrimp-scallop potsticker, sushi rice, seaweed salad and pickled cucumber.
It is a lot of fun to dig in to each compartment to savor the unique flavor or to combine several items for the blend and fusion of tastes. Bento box lunches are great conversation starters. And, for a moment, they allow me to reminisce.
Roppongi is a wonderful venue for lunch or dinner. The interior is chic Asian, decorated with both traditional and contemporary Japanese art. The interior is very comfortable and even includes a fireplace and sitting area. A long sushi bar offers outstanding choices of rolls, sashimi and nigiri. A firepit on the exterior is a great place for enjoying cool evenings.
Item on the menu always feature an Asian touch. Pan-Seared Mahi Mahi comes with nori. Grilled Filet Mignon comes with sake-braised shitake. Shelton Farms Chicken Breast comes with hon shimeji mushrooms.
Stephen Window is the magic chef who makes it all happen. Although he grew up and was trained in England, his worldwide experience and exposure to oriental cuisine has made him a master of Pacific Rim dining. He's worked in Maui and Kauai and became very knowledgeable on the use of exotic Oriental ingredients.
To top it all off, Roppongi offers an excellent wine menu and a good selection of sake. Instead of the "three martini lunch," try a bento box with a carafe of saki for an exotic experience.
Roppongi is part of the Ladeki Restaurant Group, which includes the successful Sammy's Woodfired Pizza chain, which always is a promise of enjoyable fine dining. Roppongi Restaurant is located at 875 Prospect St in La Jolla. Call (858) 551-5252 for information and reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.