On a personal note, I used to frequent a restaurant called New Sushi House at 1969 Harbor in Costa Mesa, which was run by a friendly Chinese couple. They were suddenly replaced by a Taco Surf around July of 2004. If anyone knows what happened to them or where the chef is now, I'd very much appreciate a comment or email. He had some very innovative rolls, which I'd like to taste again.
Edit 08/24/20312: Funashin has closed. The space is now home to Izakaya Ku.)
In Japan, a bento is a culinary jewel box containing a variety of succulent tidbits that delight the senses. They're a ubiquitous lunchtime treat that can be picked up from convenience stores, department stores, restaurants, and train stations. Mothers pack them for their children and husbands. Families take them to work, school, parks, or outdoor events. Every city has its own regional variations, epitomized by the famous ekiben (train station bentos). Yet in the States, the glorious plethora embodied by the bento is diminished, replaced by mix-n-match combination lunches that are pretenders to the name. A bento isn't a choice of teriyaki chicken, teriyaki beef, or a pork cutlet. It doesn't always come with a garden salad. You shouldn't be locked into a side of tempura, gyoza, or sashimi. A true bento is a cook's gift to you. It's an omakase of his or her favorite small dishes, packed together in an amount that won't make you gain ten pounds, at a cost that won't make you raid your child's college fund. A bento, in short, is a box of edible imagination.
Having recently embarked on a journey of home bento-making discovery, Elonweis wanted to sample some authentic restaurant bentos for inspiration. Unfortunately, everywhere we looked, we were faced with boring, insipid, unimaginative offerings. Through a series of misadventures, and with the help of my trusty GPS, we ended up at Funashin Japanese restaurant in Fountain Valley.
Conveniently located at the corner of the 405 freeway and Brookhurst, Funashin appeared to be typical of Japanese restaurants in the States. A small sushi bar spanned one side of the restaurant, separated from the dining area by shoji screens. The menu contained the usual suspects, teriyaki this, tempura that, and nods to udon and sukiyaki. However, two small lines near the top of its menu set Funashin apart; "Funashin Bento. Boxed lunch with a variety of Japanese delicacies." There was an A Set and a B Set. The difference? The B Set included a tempura assortment. Fingers crossed, we ordered the Funashin Bento B Set.
The standard bowls of Miso Shiru were brought out immediately. They passed the first test. We didn't go blind.
To take the edge off of our hunger while we waited, we ordered a few items from the sushi bar. The tender slices of Tako (octopus) were chewy, juicy, and redolent with the flavors of the briny deep. The sushi rice, on the other hand, was disturbingly salty.
Two ruddy pieces of Hamachi (yellowtail tuna), my gauge for freshness at any sushi bar, were mediocre at best. Once again, there was something terribly wrong with the seasoning of the sushi rice, which almost drowned out the fish.
The Uni (sea urchin genitalia), glistening cylinders of ice cold richness, tasted of egg yolks and the sea. Here, the large amount of salt used in the sushi rice served to enhance the strong flavor of the sea urchin, instead of clashing as it had with the more delicate yellowtail.
The Ninja Roll was a Soft Shell Crab Roll done on the cheap, containing mostly imitation crab with a little avocado and deep fried soft shell crab. I guess the soft shell crab was the "ninja", since it was well-hidden by the other ingredients. With only five pieces, definitely not worth its $9.50 asking price.
Disappointed with the sushi, Elonweis and I were more than ready for our bentos when they arrived. It was worth the wait. The selection, the sheer variety, these were the bentos we were looking for. They were type of bentos one might find in Japan, featuring the best small dishes the restaurant had to offer.
Going clockwise from the top, we found a number of simmered items, including bamboo shoots, kabocha pumpkin, taro, konnyaku, and fishcake. A piece of tamagoyaki, sweetened and custard-like Japanese omelet peeped out from next to a cup of seasoned burdock and carrot threads. A small mound of seaweed salad graced the front.
Everything was exquisite and perfectly flavored, particularly the dense kabocha, which melted and spread its gentle sweetness throughout my mouth. The konnyaku resisted slightly before breaking into shards that ricocheted off my mouth and tongue like a shattered super ball.
Next, a slab of salmon, austerely seasoned with salt and grilled, was perfect in its simplicity. A squirt of lemon added a bright accent to the rich meat. Behind the salmon, a crispy piece of tori kara-age, its deep color revealing the ginger and soy sauce marinade it had steeped in before taking a dip in hot oil.
Generous slices of gem-like maguro (tuna) and hamachi sashimi glowed in the lower right. The hamachi, which we'd already sampled, was average. However, the ruby red maguro was very fresh, releasing more and more of its rich flavor as we chewed.
The lower left side held a dazzling assortment of tempura, including shrimp, sweet potato, and kabocha. Most intriguing was a lurid yellow cylinder covered in a batter I'd never seen before. One bite revealed it to be surumi, with a crisp covering reminiscent of Corn Flakes or puffed rice. The tempura were very enjoyable, although a little too oily. Given the sheer amount of food in Funashin's bento, it was almost overkill. I could see why they offered an A Set sans tempura.
Above the tempura, what initially appeared to be a croquette drizzled with tonkatsu sauce turned out to be a whole scallop crusted with panko crumbs and deep fried. The soft texture of the scallop was a great contrast for its crunchy armor and tangy sauce. Behind it lurked another piece of tori kara-age.
Last but not least, a selection of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) were placed in the center to refresh the palate between items. They went very well with the rice.
After all, no meal is complete without rice. Gotta have the rice.
Funashin - The sushi is only so-so, but the bento makes it worth going to. That one dish alone is enough to make me a regular. The tempura in the B Set should be tried at least once. However, if you have a low tolerance for oily food, you might be better off getting the A Set. Stay away from the sushi bar.
Hamachi - $4.00
Uni - Market Price
Tako - $3.50
Ninja Roll - $9.50
Funashin Bento B Set - $13.50
18120 Brookhurst St, Ste 25
Fountain Valley, CA 92708