Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CT Bento Cafe - boxes and boba galore

CT Bento Cafe

Restaurant info:
335 Elmira Rd.
Ithaca, NY 14850

607-277-7017

This restaurant had its grand opening a few weeks ago, taking the place of Smart Monkey Cafe. The restaurant is quite big, holding about 20 tables and a take out counter as well. Siddharth and I wanted to try it because we love Japanese food and especially bubble tea, which this cafe does as well. Unfortunately Bento Cafe hasn't advertised too much so when we arrived for a very early dinner (5:30pm) it was completely empty. I'm sure during the summer and during proper meal times, the restaurant will be filled.




Once we arrived, we were greeted and seated by a friendly host/waitress. The restaurant decor was quite festive with some Japanese artwork and sculptures. The placemats were photographs of the many sushi fish with English and Japanese names. Some even have pronunciations at the bottom so you can properly pronounce your favorite sushi. The menu is quite simple with your typical appetizers like edamame, tempura, and gyoza.











 We started with a salmon sushi roll and a spicy tuna roll. The fish wasn't as good as you would get in a city close to the ocean like NYC or Boston. However, for a Central New York restaurant, the fish did not taste frozen at all.


Obviously for their name, Bento Cafe is all about the Japanese home-packed meal type of cuisine, so we were not surprised about the numerous choices for a bento box dinner. In addition to the a bento box, one could order rice bowls that you could customize to your tasting. You first order your protein which ranged from chicken, pork katsu (katsu is a particular breading), tofu, steak, salmon or vegetable. Then you can pick your sauce from a list of choices: teriyaki, spicy yaki, peanut, oyako (light broth), curry or their house sauce which they described as "sweet, sour, spicy with sesame". Although their house sauce sounded a bit interesting, we decided to try their traditional sauces.
Siddharth's Pork Katsu Bowl
Siddharth ordered a customized bowl with pork katsu in spicy yaki sauce over a bowl of brown rice. He added a side of vegetables to get his vitamins.





Tricia ordered a bento box with tempura with peanut sauce. The bento box came with 3 shrimp tempura, sweet potato, turnip and broccoli tempura and several other little appetizers including 2 california rolls, 1 gyoza, small seaweed salad and a lettuce salad with really good ginger dressing. And let's not forget the brown rice! It was quite a filling meal.
Tricia's Shrimp Tempura Bento Box

For dessert, Siddharth and I wanted to try their bubble teas or the Boba Tea. With a total of 16 boba flavors from your typical milk black to several exotic fruits (yes, better than apple!) like passion fruit, kumquat, kiwi and honeydew. But what intrigued us bubble tea connoisseurs was a  "popping boba" addition for $0.75. Never having been exposed to such an addition, I just had to try it. Popping boba are little pearls of similar size to the tapioca pearls but filled with fruit juices. The fruit juices one can choose from include lychee, strawberry, passion fruit, mango and yogurt. We didn't try the yogurt flavor (as interesting and perhaps weird as it sounds) but passion fruit boba tea with lychee popping boba was on my list (right drink). Siddharth loves taro milk black with tapioca so he ordered that (left drink).
Left - Taro Bubble Milk Tea, Right - Passion Fruit Tea with Popping Boba

TASTE

Siddharth:
6/10

The sushi was mediocre from a global perspective, but it compares favorably to Miyake and Kyushu and is on level ground with Plum Tree (other Ithaca sushi places). The spicy tuna roll was a bit bland. I thought that the amount of rice vinegar used was a bit much, but the taste was not unpleasant. My pork katsu bowl was actually quite good. The vegetables were fresh, and the pork was crispy, so nothing to complain about. The brown rice was cooked well, and I found it a nice complement to the rest of the dish. The spicy yaki sauce was tasty and a good accompaniment. 

In terms of bubble tea: the taro was good authentic milk tea. It was made with real brewed black tea (not just powder), and the bubbles were cooked well. The only problem was that there was not enough sugar added, so the drink was a little bland overall. Generally, boba are boiled in brown sugar syrup, and the ones at CT bento box were not, so the drink was not quite sweet enough for me. Perhaps this could be fixed by simply asking for some extra sugar next time.   

Tricia:
6/10

Other than the bubble tea, the meal itself wasn't anything special, but it was expected from a Japanese cafe in Ithaca where fresh fish is hard to come by. The sushi rolls were certainly not made professionally, more like an amateur who doesn't know the proper ratio of rice vinegar and rice. The rice needed more flavor and the seaweed got soggy from the rice. The spicy tuna roll needed more flavor for it to be actually called spicy tuna. I'm not really a spicy tuna fan, but even I thought this roll was lacking. It really could have used more of the spicy mayo. The tempura was nicely fried but the peanut sauce was not a good sauce to complement the shrimp. That was probably my fault and perhaps should have chose an alternative sauce like oyako or the house. I even asked our waitress to suggest a proper sauce with the shrimp tempura, but she didn't suggest anything else. This is not to say that the peanut sauce wasn't good, it was creamy and sweet, but not for seafood. I didn't much care for the brown rice either which was a little too grainy and undercooked. I think Siddharth's customized bowl looked and tasted better.
 
MENU

Siddharth:
7.5/10

In terms of bento box options, CT Bento Cafe lives up to its name and provides plenty of choices of meats and sauces. The appetizers and sushi choices are the same that you would find at any mid-tier Japanese restaurant. Drink choices are nice, and there were multiple desserts that sounded good that I would go back to try.

Tricia:
7/10

Obviously from its name, the restaurant wants to be known for its selection in bento boxes where one can select their main meat, type of rice and any sauce. For those who are not looking for a large packed meal in a box, they can order a simplified meal with a rice bowl without the small additional appetizers. And because it wasn't a real sushi restaurant (just a restaurant that served sushi) I didn't expect many creative sushi rolls either. Had their been some other selective dishes as an appetizer, I would increase their score. For now, they are just an ordinary Japanese fast food restaurant.


AMBIANCE


Siddharth:
8/10

For those that have gone to Smart Monkey, you know how large this space is. CT Bento Cafe has done a nice job decorating and providing a Japanese feel. This is not a formal place, but it's extremely comfortable and clean. Compared to all the collegetown and commons sushi places, Bento has a much nicer dining area and relaxing feel. The only downside was that the place seems sort of hollow and empty with so few people in there. I hope that more people discover Bento cafe, as filling that space will really increase the warmth.

Tricia:
8.5/10

The restaurant was quite peaceful and nicely decorated. Because we ate quite early, there was no one there so ruin a peaceful ambiance. It was also nice to be able to see into the kitchen from the dining room, giving the customer a look-see in the kitchen's operations. 

SERVICE


Siddharth:
7.5/10

Friendly and fast. Not particularly distinctive in any way, but completely fine for a casual dinner. They only had 2 people working though, so I'm not sure how well they'll handle it if they ever do get a crowd.

Tricia:
7/10

Our waitress was quite attentive and quick to serve us. Had she have given me suggestions on my food when I asked her, she too would get a higher score. 

VALUE


Siddharth:
8/10

Compared to other sushi places in town, this is a great value. Their bubble tea is also priced excellently. You won't spend more than the food is worth here.

Tricia:
9/10

Typically you would find sushi quite expensive in the Ithaca area (especially in Collegetown at Plum Tree and Miyake), but the pricing at Bento Cafe was quite inexpensive, despite the drive down RT 13 to get to this restaurant. You will rarely find sushi restaurants serving sushi rolls for less than $7 these days, even Wegman's will sell inauthentic sushi for $10 or more! And the bubble tea was quite reasonable, similar price to what you would get at Old Tea House in Collegetown. But they offer the popping boba which I thought was worth the extra $0.75

Overall, we're really pulling for this place. While it could improve in many aspects, as it is, it presents some fresh alternatives and new options to the Japanese cuisine that is more well-established in Ithaca. This could be a top-notch bubble tea house that actually has comfortable seating (as opposed to the Old Teahouse), and that would be a welcome addition to the Ithaca scene. We encourage you to try it and support this new business! 

1 comment:

  1. UPDATE: visited CT Bento Box on 8/28/2011. Despite a huge space and low crowds, this restaurant is still open. We had delicious bubble tea there again (best in Ithaca, with The Old Teahouse currently on hiatus). We had them in the restaurant and they came in mammoth beer mugs. We really urge you to try this place, and we really hope that it survives!

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