Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet

Hey, folks.  Sorry about the delay.  I’m working on the most important writing assignment of my life, which unfortunately has nothing to do with restaurant reviews or food in general.  I have a few recent reviews I need to share when I take breaks, so don’t give up on me — I’d never give up on you!

I should start out by saying that I like sushi a lot.  I don’t eat it or write about it as much as I do sandwiches, burgers, or pasta, because I rarely partake.  I consider sushi a rare treat and almost a “luxury meal” for a few reasons:

  • It is so beautifully, artfully prepared,
  • It is difficult to make well at home (as opposed to sandwiches or pasta) so I leave it to the professionals, and
  • It ain’t cheap!

The expense is usually what keeps me from gorging on gorgeous fresh nigiri or being ridiculously ravenous for radiant rolls.  The fact that it takes so much sushi to fill me up can become a dangerous proposition, especially at an upscale establishment.  And these ultra-elite sushi restaurants that promise you the best omakase dining experience ever — I’m sure they’re wonderful, but too rich for my blood.

I almost didn’t take note when some of the good folks on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook recommended Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair in Altamonte Springs.  (http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/)  My wife has never been a fan of buffet dining, so we almost never go to them.  I grew up eating at Chinese buffets throughout Miami with my dad, and I regularly visited Gainesville’s all-you-can-eat Chinese and pizza buffets during my college years, when I was all about quantity over quality.  They helped keep me alive through a few degrees!

These days, I can’t eat like I used to, and I at least attempt to be a little healthier through portion control and exercise, so all-you-can-eat is less of a draw for me.  Plus, I can’t help but be a little more skeptical about all-you-can-eat sushi, after reading Kitchen Confidential and getting older and coming more to terms with my own mortality.

But Mikado’s sushi is extremely fresh and extremely high quality, they assured me.  And there’s a huge variety to choose from — always music to my ears.  If you go for dinner, they even have sashimi (fresh slices of fish on their own, without rice to fill you up), and everything is included for only $25 per person!  WHAAAAT?  How can this be?  The Foodie Forum rarely steers me wrong, so I realized I hadn’t had sushi in forever, and this Mikado had to be worth a try.  My longtime readers know I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.  I had an afternoon off, so I told my wife we’d arrive at 5:00 when Mikado opened for dinner, to be there first when everything was freshly-made.

And I’m so glad we gave it a try, because it was AWESOME.  The sumptuous variety and quality of the sushi seriously exceeded my expectations.  Even my wife was extremely impressed (and relieved).  Sushi chefs were hard at work behind the buffet, replenishing everything.  The preparations were artful, and everything was well-labeled so you knew what each piece was.  (Of course, it was difficult to keep it all straight once things made it to our plates.)

This was my first trip to the buffet:

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I count 22 pieces on this plate, each one better than the last.  I love rolls, and they offered some really creative and intricate ones — no boring California rolls for me (although if you like those, they had them too)!  I know purists may scoff at rolls, but I love the blend of flavors, textures, and colors and the beautiful presentation.  They may not be traditional like nigiri, but I couldn’t get enough of them.

And this was my second trip, when I discovered the sashimi, as well as marinated tuna and salmon crudo, ceviche, and different chilled seafood salads.  As far as the sashimi, the mackerel (saba) is always my favorite because it reminds me of pickled herring, one of the foods of my people, but they were all top-notch.

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Are there 18 pieces on this plate?  Sharp-eyed readers may come up with a more accurate count.

Here is the buffet menu, to further tantalize and tempt:
http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/dinner-menu.php

I love raw oysters, and they have them too.  Yes, I’ve heard about the “months-with-an-R” warning, but the only reason I didn’t try an oyster was because I came for the sushi.  They had plenty of delicious-looking hot foods too, but I was a man on a mission, and that mission was to eat all the sushi I could.

We did indulge in dessert, simply because it was there, and it looked so pretty.  My wife had their creme brulee that was more like flan, and I had tiny tastes of tiramisu, banana pudding, and mango mousse cake.  But that was it for me.  I don’t remember the last time I was so full, but it was totally worth it.

I should note that Mikado charges you a fee for wasting food, especially if you load up on nigiri pieces, eat the fish, and leave the rice over. I have no problem with this, as I hate to see food wasted under any circumstances. Pace yourself, scope out your options before loading up your plate, try small tastes of everything in case you don’t like something, and don’t be a jerk who snatches up half the buffet and leaves so much of it behind.

We ate like kings for 25 bucks each, and Mikado’s quality definitely matched the quantity — rare for an all-you-can-eat buffet setting, even rarer for good sushi.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Even if you’re a regular at your favorite hip, trendy, upscale sushi restaurant, give Mikado a chance, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised and very possibly blown away.  You can’t beat it.  I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, which is the best possible recommendation I can give any restaurant.