Pork Belly and Chawanmushi for Bento Box Brunch at Nobuo at Teeter House
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See also: Clove-Scented Ham and Baked Pancakes at Wy-Knot Cafe See also: Frescas and Pozole at Distrito
What: Nobuo at Teeter House Where: Heritage Square, 622 E. Adams Street, Phoenix, 602-254-0600 When: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (no reservations past 3 p.m.) How much: $50 per person, which includes one wine pairing Need to Know: Fukuda needs at least three day's notice for Bento Brunch and he only takes ten people. Make your reservations by Thursday at the latest.
Mood: You wouldn't think the Teeter House -- a Midwestern-style bungalow built in 1899 -- could possibly set the proper tone for Nobuo Fukuda's modern American spin on the snack foods of the Japanese izakaya. But its age, simplicity and even the creak of its wood floors are pitch perfect, capturing the essence of wabi sabi -- a Japanese aesthetic that values rusticity, understated elegance and the beauty that comes from constant use. Painted in various soothing shades of blue and gray, the space -- a series of small dining rooms -- emotes a kind of Zen peacefulness, making it a relaxing Sunday afternoon retreat before the work week hits you like a freight train the next day.
Food: Fukuda is famous for his omakase, an improvisational sushi bar practice whereby customers trust the chef to make them whatever he wants to, usually the best of the best . It's always a win-win -- fun for the chef to strut his stuff, fun for the guest who gets surprise after delicious surprise, each dish typically more creative than anything ordered off the menu. After Japan's 2011 tsunami made sourcing Japanese products (including pristine fish) almost impossible, Fukuda abandoned omakase for a while.
Now he makes it available every Sunday in the form of Bento Box Brunch -- which means customers are really getting two great Japanese traditions in one sitting: omakase and obento. Obento (the word becomes "bento" when the honoric "O" is left off) is a traditional Japanese box lunch, picked up on the fly and eaten the same way. When hand-packed at home by Japanese mothers, bento is also school lunch turned art form, each little divider beautifully arranged with color and composition in mind.
Both bento box levels with five compartments
As you might imagine, Fukuda's obento is stunning, arriving in a heavy lacquered box containing two levels and five compartments. Taking off the lid to see what's inside offers the same little rush of expectancy as opening a birthday present.
Most obento box lunches contain meat or fish, rice and something pickled, but the variations are endless. Fukuda takes the same approach, offering protein and starch and veggie and anything else that strikes his fancy. You may get some of the dishes I'm about to describe here or you may get something else entirely, Either way, it's a safe bet you're going to be happy.
Pork belly and rice
In the top compartment, I find charred and fatty pork belly with rice, earthy shiitake and delicate shimeji mushrooms, the whole fragrant thing served on a banana leaf. Fukuda says the rice gets a little douse of the ginger-garlic marinade used on the pork, which has been fried, then steamed for three hours and finally baked with the rice and mushrooms. It's Japanese comfort food, elegant and hearty at once. Lightly pickled carrot and celery make tart counterpoint.
Chawanmushi two ways
One of my favorite Japanese dishes -- the savory steamed egg custard called chawanmushi -- contains New Caledonia shrimp, a glistening bead-like overlay of ikura (salmon roe) and an elegant top-knot of gold leaf. Right beside it, a slightly thicker foie gras egg custard, given a crunchy bruleéd top. Heavenly.
Next door to that bit of elegance lies a puffy, lightly battered piece of shrimp tempura, sided with skewers of duck meat, watermelon, pineapple and goat cheese, and goat cheese with cotton candy grapes (which really do taste like cotton candy, making them completely addictive).
The bottom tier holds a compartment of rosy kampachi sashimi, a spoon containing two disks of poached tuna on a schmear of cucumber sauce and slices of lightly seared tuna, smoothed with sweet onion sauce. If you were taking the omakase, light-to-heavy approach, you'd probably start with this one.
Ramen noodles (mixed with a light, soy-based sauce), chicken katsu (fried cutlet), grilled chicken thigh, marinated and fried chicken wing, striped Mandurian Round cucumber (an heirloom variety), tomato, fried okra, pickled ginger and slivers of cooked egg make a beautifully composed cold plate that feels just right for summer.
The handiwork of Arai Bakery
Fukuda lets Arai Bakery in Tempe handle the desserts and they are spectacular -- this day, a fluffy bit of orange and cream (served in an orange wedge), which brings Orange Julius to mind, a black and white sesame creme caramel whose flavor is strangely akin to peanut butter and a restrained tomato-basil cheesecake, spooned with tomato jam, that leaves America's overly sweet, lead-heavy cheesecakes in the dust. Alongside it, tangy tomato-goat cheese ice cream.
Bottom Line: What a gorgeous, fabulous Sunday morning splurge for $50! As for those pricy, predictable hotel brunches, sorry, for me, there's no going back.
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