Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bento Box @ Kamon

Eating good Japanese food is one of life’s simple pleasures. Nowhere is this more achievable and enjoyable than at the Siam City Hotel’s Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse. I was fortune enough to stop by the other day for a bento box lunch. For those of you not familiar, first a little background info...

O-bento is what the Japanese call a packed meal, usually lunch. Bento boxes have internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments. (This is nice if, like me, you don't necessarily like to mix flavours.) The whole thing is usually wrapped together with chopsticks in a cloth or special bag, and the goal is to make the whole package as attractive as possible – from considering the colour combinations of the food and presenting and garnishing it as neatly and artfully as you can, to co-ordinating the box, chopsticks and wrapper, and any other items like paper napkins, knife and fork or spoon, drink flask or thermos. Bento boxes themselves range from handsome lacquered wood boxes, with which you may be served in a nice Japanese restaurant [like Kamon!], to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon (anime) character art. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls.

The crux of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles – the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. (I wonder if anyone in Japan is willing to try the Atkins diet, or are they all too sensible?) In addition, there's okazu – side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, they try to have one “protein” item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day!). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties – this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!

In the culinary arts, they say that presentation is as important as preparation. In Japan, it’s all about presentation when making lunch. This fanaticalism is called kyaraben, and goes beyond simply making the meal look appetising. So important is this that contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Kyaraben is typically decorated to look like people, animals or characters, along with items such as flowers and plants. And that’s what you’ll find at Kamon: artfully presented and prepared food of the highest order.

Now, back to my story. I choose a delicious grilled salmon, sashimi (sliced raw fish), miso soup, chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and tempura (deep-fried battered fish and vegetables) bento box; which set me back a very reasonable Bht 390++. This was accompanied by a few side-dishes to share with my dining companions: roasted ginko nuts (Bht 270), fresh seaweed with sour miso dressing (Bht 300), chilled tofu with ginger soy sauce (Bht 90), grilled eggplant with sweet bean paste (Bht 150) and a drink of lychee juice (Bht 85). The bento box was by far the shining star of the meal. The rice was light and fluffy; the salmon grilled to perfection; the tempura crispy and light; the custard savour and silky; the sashimi fresh and aromatic and the miso seasoned with just the right amount of salt. Sadly, I was so stuffed from entrees and mains that I had to forgo dessert; which is a damn shame as the restaurant’s green tea ice cream (Bht 100) and red bean jelly served on shaved ice with syrup (Bht 90) are damn fine!

One of the other great things about Kamon is the setting and service – both impeccable. One can choose to dine the regular Western way in the bright and airy main dining room (which also has two great tepanyaki stations) or in one of seven private dining rooms (capable of seating from 4 to 30 people) with chairs or tradition Japanese-style seating (e.g. on the ground). I’ve also had occasion to eat in one of the private rooms and I must say it is mighty fine. From the kimono–clad waitresses to the tatami mats (shoe-free), sunken table to flower arrangements, crockery and furniture – everything is perfect in every detail. For the full experience I highly recommend this, nobody does sensory-overload dining quite like the Japanese!

Getting there: Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse is located on the 2nd floor of the Ayuthaya Wing, at the Siam City Hotel. Besides a taxi, the easiest way to get here is by Skytrain. The hotel’s closest stop (only 500m away!) is Station Phayathai, located on the Sukhumvit Line [just two stops from Station Siam]. At Phayathai, take exit 2 and cross over the large intersection. The hotel is a mere 100m up on your left-hand side.

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