Bento boxes are one of the greatest creations. Bento boxes are one of the greatest creations. Traditional bento, a staple of Japanese cuisine, generally consists of rice, fish or meat, and pickled or cooked vegetables. Modern bento boxes often contain sushi, rice and noodles, meat or fish, an assortment of fried vegetables and a salad. It usually comes with a starter of miso soup. What more could you want?
Growing up in Ithaca, I have made an effort to go to all of the Asian restaurants that serve these bento boxes. I realized over the years that at each place, the chicken teriyaki bento box (my favorite) has subtle differences. Recently I decided to do a comparison of some of the places that serve bento boxes. I tried Asia Cuisine, located in downtown Ithaca; Sumo, near Ithaca Mall, and Plum Tree, in the heart of Collegetown. At each I ordered a chicken teriyaki bento box.
Asia Cuisine is ideally located, diagonal from the downtown CTB and right across the street from one of the downtown Ithaca parking lots. This has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Ithaca; I have gone here all of my life, to the point that the staff recognize me. Every time I walk through the doors and the heavy red curtain used to keep out drafts, I feel a sense of calm and comfort. It is never too loud or chaotic. It’s not a big space so it maintains a very intimate atmosphere. It has red carpets on the floor, slightly muddy from all the customers, and dark red brick walls, adorned by a few pictures. At my most recent visit, I chose to sit at a table facing the windows so I could look out onto the streets of Downtown Ithaca. I always enjoy watching the people go by: some of them stopping to look at the menu of Asia Cuisine, some of them going elsewhere for dinner at one of the many restaurants on Aurora Street.
It was only 5 p.m. and the restaurant was not crowded, yet there were still at least three other families eating and a few couples sitting in the window seats. Being downtown, Asia Cuisine tends to attract more locals than places closer to campus. The waiter came quickly to take my order and only about five minutes later, my miso soup arrived, followed soon after by my bento box.
The Asia Cuisine bento box contains vegetable tempura, four California rolls, glass noodles, teriyaki chicken, rice and green salad. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the salad dressing; I ended up eating around the dressing and picking out the individual salad leaves. Everything else in the bento box was as good as ever. The vegetable tempura is always my favorite. I also like mixing the chicken, rice and noodles together as I find the rice a bit bland without anything else in it. Overall, I highly recommend this meal for anyone looking for a delicious dinner downtown.
The first thing I saw coming into Sumo was a small room filled with Polaroid pictures showing people who have previously eaten at Sumo. Going into the main room, I remember a distinctive toy cat greeting me with its arm rocking back and forth. Sumo is a big space; there are pink cherry blossoms placed along the wall, beautiful Japanese pictures, and lights of different styles hanging from the ceiling. There is a large area in the middle filled with people making sushi. The atmosphere is not very intimate, but the decorative setup still makes it very appealing. It’s an ideal place for a large group of people or for a special occasion. They even have special event rooms in the back for large parties. Sumo also has the benefit of offering hibachi as well, so you can see your food cooked right in front of you!
The menu is extensive, unlike Asia Cuisine’s simple front and back menu. Here, you can choose between a soup and salad to start — I end up getting the soup and my companion gets the salad, which he later remarked was one of the best starting salads he’s ever had, with a very tasty dressing. I tried the salad and have to admit, I much prefer it to the one I had at Asia Cuisine. When ordering, we did have a few minor misunderstandings with the waitress as we couldn’t understand everything she said. Yet we still ordered pretty easily and our food came out quickly. Sumo’s bento box came with six California rolls, chicken teriyaki with cooked vegetables, rice, three gyoza and pineapple!
The gyoza — fried dumplings — were some of the best I’ve tasted and were a very nice addition to the bento box. The rest of the food was very good, but I have to admit I missed the vegetable tempura, and I got tired of the huge quantity of cooked vegetables. The pineapple, however, was a nice inclusion. Leaving Sumo, I felt incredibly satisfied and would be happy to come back. Don’t be surprised to find my face greeting you from one of the Polaroid pictures!
I rushed into Plum Tree around noon. Snow was pummeling the streets outside, but Plum Tree was bustling with life. Every table in the main area was full, so I was taken up a small set of stairs to a new area. The lunch bento box here does not come with a miso soup, so I had to order one separately. Unlike the other boxes, this one offers you a choice of vegetable or California rolls. I chose vegetable, as I have never actually been the biggest fan of California rolls. This is clearly a student-orientated place; I can’t spot anyone who looks like a local.
My soup and bento box came out pretty fast despite how crowded it was. This one consisted of a salad, rice, two gyoza, snap peas, four vegetable sushi and teriyaki chicken.
This was my favorite combination of bento box ingredients; there was not a single part I didn’t like. However, the atmosphere in general was a bit more stressful; the conversations around me consisted of students talking about their classes, their majors and a professor who was not emailing them back. Asia Cuisine and Sumo are more removed from Cornell’s campus, so I did not hear stressed-out student conversations. In fact, I didn’t hear any conversations at all since those places weren’t as full. Plum Tree certainly has a very tasty bento box and if you are a student, it is certainly a few steps up from dining hall food!
My bento box tour around Ithaca was a big success. I finally understand the subtle differences between each box and how the atmosphere differs at each restaurant. I didn’t have a bad experience at any of these establishments and would happily return to any of them. If you want to go out to a Japanese dinner with a big group of friends, Sumo is your place. If you want a relaxed and very efficient dinner, make your way downtown to Asia Cuisine. And if you’re on campus and want a great meal, make your way to Collegetown to Plum Tree. Go bask in some bento boxes!