Don't visit Bentoh's expecting the food to fall into a simple category. Bentoh's offers sushi but isn't a sushi bar. It offers Japanese bentos--which consist of meat and vegetables served over rice and accompanied by chilli sauce or a teriyaki glaze--but it isn't just a Japanese restaurant. Its menu also includes Thai dishes and fresh seafood, like crab cakes or oysters.
"You could call us a Euro-Asian bistro," says Jim Oh, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Cindy. "We use the freshest ingredients possible, and there is an Asian influence. We offer food not offered in most other local restaurants."
A Springfield native, Oh developed a taste for fresh sushi while living in Japan, and he encountered a rich variety of Asian-influenced cuisine traveling on America's east and west coasts. His lack of prior restaurant experience was less important to his success than his wealth of knowledge about food, gleaned from his mother and noteworthy chefs he'd met on his travels.
"I've always wanted to open a restaurant," Oh says. "It was more of a hobby for me. I don't have a culinary degree. But it's hard to mess up food that's fresh."
Jim and Cindy met in Tokyo while both worked in marketing, and they decided to move to Springfield to be near family and to fulfill the desire to open an eatery. The restaurant's name is a play on their own name and the Japanese word "bento," which are served in a carefully arranged box lunch.
The restaurant uses as many local food producers as possible and has sushi flown in from San Diego. Because the food is prepared fresh, the menu changes daily and seasonally. In the summer, Oh is a frequent visitor to the downtown farmers market.
Only a few local restaurants offer sushi. "It's very popular on the west coast and we wanted to bring it here," Oh says. "We offer a lot of seafood that other people don't offer at lunch."
The tiny restaurant--formerly a Fannie May candy shop--has a simple yet classic decor, with yellow walls, five round black tables, and a counter to place orders. The large menu hanging over the counter is trimmed in gold. Complimentary pot stickers are brought to the table while you wait for your order.
The sushi rolls include tuna, vegetable maki, salmon leek tempura, and California, a popular version made with crab, avocado, cucumber, and carrots. Don't think "raw fish" when you hear the word sushi. Some has no fish at all, and the dominant flavors are often from the fresh vegetables and rice. Paper-thin slices of ginger, splashes of soy sauce, and dabs of hot-as-blazes wasabi liven up the experience. Cindy makes it a point to help sushi novices with the basics.
Salads range from a classic Caesar to a Bentoh's steak or grilled chicken salad, which is a mound of mixed greens with vegetables, candied walnuts, and blue cheese topped with Oh's homemade Asian vinaigrette, which is available for purchase. Keeping with the theme of light, fresh food, Bentoh's offers steamed brown or white rice instead of fried rice and spring rolls--uncooked wraps of noodles, vegetables, and herbs--instead of egg rolls.
Because of the restaurant's limited seating, customers often use the restaurant's take-out and delivery services. On one wall hangs framed letters from satisfied catered customers, including elected state officials, legislative leaders, and lobbyists. In fact, catering is a large part of the business and a major reason the restaurant is now only open for lunch.
"With every event, we try to sit down with the customer and go over what they are trying to accomplish," Oh says. "It goes beyond food--it involves the table settings and everything that adds to the ambiance." The restaurant occasionally offers weekend sushi dinners, when unique seafood is served "that people have not seen." Oh says these special evening meals require reservations and always sell-out.
Bentoh's is located at 213 S. Fifth Street in Springfield (217-544-6972). Lunch hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Daily specials. Delivery and catering available. u