While working on an article about the branding genius of Ikea's immersive retail environments, a writer I know once set up shop in an office display on the store's showroom floor. I mean that literally: He settled into a Träne chair at an Effectiv desk, replaced the framed photo of a Nordic model with one of his nephew, then plugged in his laptop and spent the day researching and writing his article. (His progress was occasionally slowed by inquiries from confused customers—"Excuse me, do you work here?"—to which he would cryptically respond, "Well, I don't work for Ikea.")
That story comes to mind every time I dine at Obento-Ya: If Ikea sold kits for neighborhood Japanese restaurants, Obento-Ya could be its floor model. The room's design is as boxy as a vintage Volvo, its modern, minimalist look reinforced by the long, straight lines of the bamboo laminate booths, the sushi counter, and the dangling teardrop lights. The poppy techno music on the stereo could be the soundtrack for driving through a big city with your head sticking out of a sunroof. But it's the tiny details that make Obento-Ya as irresistible as an impulse buy: Tabletops set with smooth black stones that double as chopstick rests, tiny soy-sauce pitchers in bright shades of orange and lime. The effect is absolutely adorable without being emasculating. And absolutely Ikea: You'll want to move right in.
Obento-Ya sits on a quaint Como Avenue block near the University of Minnesota, a mixed neighborhood of college kids and old-timers, with just a whiff of Berkeley-like laid-back diversity. The adjacent barber shop looks ancient enough to have been around when a shave and a haircut actually cost two bits, as does the hardware store, the corner market, and Kind Hearts nursing services across the street. The newer businesses cater to a youthful crowd; they include a tanning salon and a head shop whose windows display ads for a smoking contest and a sale on salvia, along with photos of shoplifters captioned "Have you seen these bitches?" The neighborhood has a mellower, more mature vibe than the Dinkytown detritus—overstuffed apartment buildings with beer-bottle lawn ornaments and urine-soaked bushes—just a few blocks away. It's a hotbed of professors and graduate students with worldly tastes and small budgets—just the right clientele for a bento shop.
Obento-Ya, which means "bento shop" (obento being the polite term for the popular Japanese boxed lunch), is owned by Kjersten Winters and his wife, Mie, whom he met while stationed in Japan with the Marines. When Kjersten brought Mie back to Minnesota, the two went into business making sushi for mid-size corporate and college cafeterias. Last July, they launched the restaurant venture, with Kjersten focusing on operations and Mie as executive chef.
The restaurant offers sushi, of course: the usual suspects, plus specialty rolls served with a flourish—the flying caterpillar roll's beady little eyes are formed by tucking a plump orange fish egg into an octopus sucker. Yet Obento-Ya is the rare Japanese restaurant in town in which sushi isn't the star. Most of Minneapolis's Uptown and downtown Japanese joints take a page from the hip, high-energy places that blast electronic music, strobe lights, and smoke machines while their cheering patrons shoot sake bombs. Obento-Ya is less a party destination than a quiet neighborhood place, reminiscent of Tanpopo in Lowertown or Midori's at Hi-Lake.
Many of Obento-Ya's menu items are as comforting as home cooking. Slurpable strands of soba and udon noodles are served simmering in a broth so good you'd hate to leave even a spoonful behind. Agadashi tofu has a crisp, fried layer, thin as onion skin, and a creamy, silken center. And the same slipperiness that makes swimmers recoil at seaweed's grip gives the strands a pleasantly smooth texture when they're doused with sesame dressing and served with salad greens.
In addition to the standards, several unusual items will delight even the most jaded Japanophile. Our waiter advised us to pick up the seaweed-wrapped puck they call the "bistro rice ball" and eat it like a hamburger. In doing so, we discovered taste treasures buried like coins in a Christmas pudding. One bite was katsuo (dried, shaved bonito fish flakes), another kobu (seaweed), a third ume (a sweet, pickled plum). The savoriness of the sharp, fermented flavors intensified the rice ball's hearty heft—could this be the new Japanese burrito?
Obento-Ya's most intriguing items are the robata, tiny skewers of food cooked over a gas grill that's small enough to furnish a Barbie dream home. Northern fishermen who cooked their catch over open fires were the first to create this rustic Japanese treat. The grills waft the scent of sizzling food into the dining room, and the mouth-watering smell turns what might be an esoteric experience into one as familiar as a backyard barbecue. The chicken yakatori—tender, smoke-tinged morsels—are good enough to consider forgoing the conveniences of the modern stove and grilling everything over an open flame.
The robata and their skewered cousins, panko-breaded kushi-katsu, can be ordered in seemingly infinite assortments. There are vegetables (asparagus, zucchini, mushroom, Japanese eggplant, and Japanese pumpkin, which tastes something like acorn squash), seafood (shrimp, scallop, and chewy octopus), plus the usual beef, pork, and chicken. An assortment of dipping sauces—tentsuyu, miso-garlic, ponzu, katsu, yakatori—further increases the number of possible permutations. My personal favorite stick food is the playful one-bite breakfast: a fatty piece of bacon wrapped around a hard-boiled quail egg that's been stuck with a skewer and grilled.
You could select all these items à la carte, but it'd be a damned shame not to order them as a bento. For a couple more bucks, the skewers, sushi, tempura, or fish fillets are served in a neat, compartmentalized box with sticky rice, tossed greens, and a scoop of creamy Japanese potato salad that's flecked with crunchy bits of cucumber and apple. Meticulous little garnishes tie all the elements together: spongy blocks of sweet scrambled egg, burdock root sautéed with carrot and sesame, and those addictive Japanese pickles that look like purple snails.
In recent months, Obento-Ya has started to feel more like a full-service restaurant, having acquired a fancy dessert list, a beer and wine license, and additional seating on the back patio. A local Japanese woman makes the pastries—I tried a fluffy, not-too-sweet, black sesame cheesecake and a pastel green tea roll cake stuffed with pastry cream and sweet red bean paste—which tend to be light, deliciously uncommon, modestly priced, and modestly portioned. In addition to the intriguing nonalcoholic beverages, such as the green-tea latte or a Ramune Japanese soda (the bottle is sealed with a marble that's kept in place by the pressure of the carbonation—it could keep kids occupied for hours), Obento-Ya now serves Japanese beers, red and white wines, and Hou-Hou Shou sparkling sake. When the Hou-Hou Shou's junior-size, sky-blue bottle arrived at the table, I wondered both how I might sneak the empty into my purse so I could take it home and fill it with flowers, and also if there was a limit to how much preciousness one could handle—a presh thresh I might cross over in the process. In any case, the creamy, frothy, fruit-kissed brew is the perfect thing for patio drinking, and Obento-Ya's backyard digs create a particularly hospitable oasis, tucked behind a fence with a tinkling fountain and a cluster of birch trees, along with a psychedelic mural and car-hood awning left behind by a previous tenant, an architecture firm.
One night, four of us wound down our meal as the place cleared out about 9:30 (they stop taking customers at 9). We'd stuffed ourselves with bentos, appetizers, beers, and dessert for a total of about $80. The flavors had been as vibrant as the lime-green accent walls, which are so bright they're almost squint-inducing. But I didn't dare close my eyes, or even blink, lest I open them to find Obento-Ya was just another model showroom.