A shokado is a type of bento box, a high-sided black container divided into four equal compartments into which tiny portions of meticulously crafted food are placed. Ino Japanese Bistro mimics the shokado bento, taking its minimal elegance to engaging extremes. Walls are bare and white, trimmed with dark dusty green baseboards and wood. The ceiling is plastered with black acoustical tiles. Gauzy curtains swathe the nondescript mall-slot windows.
Within the stark walls are little nooks holding meticulously crafted things: flamingo sculptures, painted pottery, a view rendered in oil of koi swimming in a pond.
Everything seems to follow this unrestrained, exacting care. Cold sake is served in a rippled cylindrical glass decanter settled in an ice carpet spread over the bottom of a painted ceramic bucket. A fern sprig is propped up against the bucket's edge. Sake is poured into a tiny crystal dessert-wine cup.
Ino Japanese Bistro
1920 N. Coit Road,
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Even the menus are infected with aesthetic sentiment. Written in English and Japanese, menu sheets are slipped into folded, rough-textured, handmade papers in deep, saturated colors -- green, red, steel blue. Look closely and you'll find veined leaf fragments interspersed in the paper.
The menus reflect the stark elegance of the food.
Steamed edamame (soy beans, $3.50) is bright green, supple, fresh, and satisfying. Miso soup (served as an accompaniment) is light, thoroughly balanced, and not overwhelmed with salt.
Sushi is cool and supple. Lacy pieces of deep red maguro (tuna) melt on the tongue. Smelt roe is light, bright, and fluffy. Hamachi (yellowtail) is smooth and nutty, while the salmon is delicately rich. The only disappointment was the California roll -- skimpy, mushy slices.
Sushi excepted, set meals dominate Ino's selections. The special set menu ($15.95), an offering that changes weekly, includes a choice of sushi or tempura appetizers and chicken, fish, or pork main courses. Shrimp and vegetable tempura (potato, carrot) was crisply crusted with a moist core. It comes with a little bowl of udon noodles: smooth, tender threads in a murky, rich broth.
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But it's the main courses that rock. Breaded and deep-fried pork is juicy. The fish, on this visit grilled mackerel, floods your mouth with briny succulence.
The special box shokado ($20.50) is the highlight here. Delivered in a textured black plastic box with flimsy separators carving four quadrants, this shokado bento is loaded with little surprises, other than the tempura, that is, which is the same fine stuff offered with other entrées. In one corner sits a pad of supple rice molded into the shape of a star. Pickled cucumbers are woven in and around the points and notches.
Another section holds an assortment of grilled fish, pestered and fussed in various ways. The only commonplace element in this batch was the salmon, rich and delicious. Flaky too. A strip of sardine was rolled around a core of scallions. A marinated piece of mackerel (I think) was drenched in brisk, tarry, black sweetness. A strip of chicken was coiled around fragments of asparagus. There were a couple of tiny fish cakes too. Another quadrant holds a cluster of root vegetables that includes a crunchy rippled shaft resembling the horn of a unicorn. Also part of the box shokado is chawan mushi -- a savory egg custard suspending fish and shrimp served in a covered tea tumbler.
The only blemish on this culinary landscape was the chicken teriyaki ($10.25): all dull, dry, and listless with no savory grip to clutch attention. But only fools would go to a place like this and order teriyaki anyway. Ino is an episode, a tight little saga, one that transcends run-of-the-mill teriyaki -- and stark white walls.