"The not knowing was the worst," says chef Leanne Valenti when asked about her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Valenti is the owner of Bento Picnic, the popular restaurant on East Cesar Chavez that's predicated on Japanese homestyle cooking. The affable chef, who initially trained at Austin's Natural Epicurean Academy, started the business in 2015 – after having spent months in Izu, Japan, where she learned the domestic kitchen arts of washoku from her best friend's mom.
Valenti's culinary pride and joy on the Eastside is an eatery that, bentolike, also features the components of a wine shop called Saba San's and the recently transplanted-from-L.A. Sushi Bar. The welcoming venue, with its menu of eminently (oh, we have to say it) Instagrammable meals that are as healthy as they are delicious, has not only survived the food-service nightmare that was 2020 but is re-emerging even better than before.
But, yeah, that wasn't at all certain a year ago. "Last March," says Valenti, sitting at a table in Bento Picnic's elegantly designed front yard, "when we didn't know enough about the virus, there was this fear that I was gonna somehow put people at risk – just by asking them to come to work. We didn't know how it was spreading, or how quickly, or if it was even here yet. That was what I was the gladdest to be through with – the not knowing. Now that we have more information about it, and I think there's been a pretty quick response to come up with a vaccine and all, I feel a lot more confident. And a lot of people, a lot of my customers, they're coming back, too."
What people are coming back to is the diversity and convenience of bento (the word originally meant "convenience") within a streetside setting that seems like something out of Austin's more relaxed past.
"The current state of our outdoor space," says Valenti, gesturing at the well-spaced tables upon the soft faux lawn, the curated levels of small-scale landscaping, "this is the vision I've had for it since we started. But the pandemic really sped up the improvements we've been able to make. I'm so grateful for the grant program – through the city of Austin, actually – that made funds available to business owners, to help cover expenses for improving outdoor dining. Our covered space here is climatized: We have fans with misters going in the summer, and heaters that we hang from the ceiling in the winter, so the space is comfortable regardless of what the elements are doing. And, after we close the lunch menu at 6pm, this long table – it can seat 22 beneath the awning – it becomes available for private parties. The kitchen's open during the meal, but we have people pre-order what they'd like to have, and we also do a beverage pairing – so you can have beer, wine, and sake – and we provide service during the event, too, so the guests are taken care of."
Dining all bento al fresco en la noche seems totes poli kala – to mash up a few languages at once. But will this after-hours situation keep going, once the world has more fully returned to what we used to call normal?
"It's part of our long-term plan," says Valenti, "and it works quite right with the food we're offering. In fact, Stacy Franklin is a good friend of mine – we're in Les Dames d'Escoffier together – and she and Aaron at Franklin Barbecue do a similar format. Bentos and picnics are often more of a lunchtime specialty, but if we have a group that wants to do that for dinner, we're happy to entertain."
So, as if the universe – occasionally abetted by the city of Austin – were attempting to compensate for the sufferings of the pandemic, are there other smart pivots, other stopgap workarounds, that will continue because they seem like best practices for any time?
"We have an automatic door opener!" exclaims Valenti. (She's an unabashedly joyful person, this experienced chef.) "Our front door," she says, "it's like a fun new toy, but it's fantastic – especially when you're coming through with glassware and whatnot, it's just so nice to have the door open for you. Also, this order-and-pay-at-the-table program from Toast, which is our point-of-sale provider. They came out with this function during the pandemic, and it's something we're planning to continue using. Jam [Sanitchat of Thai Fresh] was just here to see how it works, for potentially using it at her store."
So here's Bento Picnic, back for keeps to supercharge the Eastside with casual Japanese elegance and offering an array of grown-up beverages via their collaboration with James Havens of Houston's Heights Grocer.
"Saba San's is our retail wine shop," says Valenti, "but anything you purchase in the shop is available for on-site consumption, too. We also have a tasting the first Saturday of every month for our club members. Every time you come, there'll be a new wine – James has a great palate and all the connections for getting great wines – as well as a taste of our featured sake of the month."
And sake, of course, goes especially well with sushi. "But," notes chef Valenti, whose favorite menu item is tamagoyaki, "my specialty is all in home-style cooking, so sushi's not in my wheelhouse. It is compatible with what we're doing, though, so it's a natural fit to have Sushi Bar here in the evenings."
And Sushi Bar itself? Well, reader, as we sip from a tumbler of Bento Picnic's fresh ginger lemonade and watch people walking by along the sun-dappled sidewalks of East Cesar Chavez, the Chronicle's own Jessi Cape covers that subject after the photo below.
2600 E. Cesar Chavez
Tucked away in a private dining room of Bento Picnic is the Los Angeles-based pop-up omakase from married pair and co-owners executive chef Phillip Frankland Lee and pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee. Sushi|Bar is a 17-course omakase inspired by traditional sushi bars of the 1930s and heavily influenced by Lee's childhood in California.
The pop-up quietly opened in late December 2020, originally intended only for a few weeks, but our welcoming food-obsessed city sold out their bookings for going on six months now. When we dined in the delightfully dimly lit space one muggy Saturday evening, Lee informed us that they'll stay here until Austin makes it clear we're ready for them to return home. This fourth location of Lee's tiny restaurant (and first location outside of California) is still operating in COVID-safe fashion, with Plexiglas barriers in between parties at the sushi bar.
Reservations are 100% required, and I'll heartily suggest the slightly rowdier, less time-constrained 9pm seating. Arrive early for a complimentary cocktail sip, and when it's time, head through the curtained doorway into what feels like a hidden world. Lee and his team are well-versed and love questions, and the more diner-chef interaction, the more fun for everyone. A wooden menu board helps guide the experience with 16 nigiri pieces, delectable pickles, and an impressive dessert bonbon of Makrut lime ice cream with black sesame shortbread and a white chocolate matcha shell paired with a green tea toddy. The mains change frequently, featuring fresh creative dishes like hamachi with sweet corn pudding and sourdough bread crumbs; bluefin tuna otoro with Japanese whiskey and caramelized pineapple; and roasted bone marrow with fresh wasabi (check out that shark skin grater) and homemade soy sauce. (They're also happy to make allergy accommodations when possible.)
With options for sake pairings, or a series of paired sake, Japanese beer, and craft cocktails, the drink program is up to the challenge of elevating elevated fare. Our most memorable sip was the Shiokawa Yamahai Junmai Ginjo Genshu "Cowboy" sake, which screams pecans and expertly two-steps with beef and smoky notes (hello, Texas barbecue).
And unlike most omakases, if at the end you find yourself still hungry, or intrigued enough to continue, the team opens the floor for additional a la carte bites – repeat any of the night's dishes or let the apprentices showcase their unique creations. Thanks to forgiving clothing, we managed an impressive 22 courses, and our fellow diners followed suit – no peer pressure, just camaraderie and curiosity fueled the feeding frenzy. Upon exiting the experience, you've likely made new friends and already booked another reservation.
Sushi | Bar Austin
2600 E. Cesar Chavez
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