Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 7, 2024

Haven’t been to Bento-Ya? Here’s what you’re missing

Tibetan born Uma is the executive chef at Bento-Ya, a new casual Japanese restaurant on Frazier Avenue. Uma is presenting her udon, a hot dashi soup. - Photos by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Have you ever tried to remember what you ate for dinner the previous evening and been stumped? If I were to ask for a show of hands, I’d have to stop typing and raise mine.

Who can blame us? The average person will eat about 86,000 meals in their lifetime, assuming they live to the ripe old age of 78, and it would be impossible to remember every repast.

That said, I’d wager that you’ve eaten a few unforgettable meals in your lifetime. Years after you dined, you can still recall the aromas and flavors, and the satisfaction of having consumed exceptional food.

I’d have to raise my hand here, too, although my memory might be fresher than yours. Two days before sitting down to write this column, I stepped through the doors of Bento-Ya on Frazier Avenue, unprepared for experiencing one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

Allow me to set the stage. Bento-Ya is a small Japanese restaurant squeezed between two other business on the side of Frazier farthest from the river. I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll miss it if you blink slowly. And you do not want to miss it.

As you enter Bento-Ya, it’s simple decor might cause you to wonder how it compares to Chattanooga’s fancier Japanese eateries. Bento-Ya sports a Shinjuku noodle shop vibe, which to my limited understanding is unassuming but attractive.

As you scan the room, you’ll note the prominent use of raw pinewood slats and Edo Period woodblock prints on the walls for decor, as well as countertops where people can stand while eating.

You’ll also spot the beaming face of Bento-Ya’s executive chef, Uma. Derived from Sanskrit, her name is one of the many used to reference the Hindu goddess Parvati, the goddess of nourishment.

Uma’s Tibetan parents were prescient in giving her this designation.

I noticed the aroma of Uma’s udon before I took in anything else. The smell of her hot dashi soup, which comes with Shikoku-style noodles (thick, chewy noodles made from rice instead of wheat), an oden egg, a fish ball, a fish cake and tofu, was heavenly and promised good things.

Uma had placed a stack of single-page menus near the cash register for easy access and browsing. Sushi fans will likely feel at home while gazing at the handful of selections, which include fish sushi, veggie sushi, nigiri, inari and onigiri.

Bento-Ya’s non-sushi offerings were just as foreign to me, including the Bento, the Rice Don (or poke bowl), the udon, the gyoza and the oden.

The descriptions of these dishes at the bottom of the menu proved helpful. Uma also very kindly and patiently explained each selection to me. (A recurring theme through this column, as well as your future visit to Bento-Ya, will be how incredibly welcoming Uma and her husband are. Think of the nicest restaurant staff you’ve encountered in Chattanooga and then double their likeability and sincerity.)

I ordered the Bento, grabbed one of the imported Japanese drinks from the nearby cooler, and took a seat at one of Bento-Ya’s two tables.

Several minutes later, my meal arrived in a decorative Bento box, a reusable Japanese-style lunch box that typically contains a single-portion meal with multiple compartments and a lid.

Lifting the lid revealed a feast of aromas and various foods. From the entree (salmon drizzled with teriyaki sauce) and the steamed rice and veggies (white rice and edamame) to the pot stickers and vegetable salad, my meal was a thing of beauty.

It was as flavorful as it was lovely. The salmon was rich, oily and flaked well, the rice was somehow both fluffy and sticky, and the potstickers, which I dipped in dumpling sauce, tasted like the ultimate Japanese comfort food. I also looked forward to devouring the salad, which was coated with a light oil.

Midway through my meal, Uma stepped out from the behind the counter and asked me if I was enjoying the meal. All I could do was go “Mmm” and rub my stomach.

I also spent a few minutes getting to know Uma. Born and raised in Tibet, she moved to the U.S. after meeting her husband, who was backpacking through her country. Uma has trained many of the sushi chefs in Chattanooga, including those at the Whole Foods on Gunbarrel Road. She and her husband opened Bento-Ya after deciding to bring her passion for authentic Shikoku cuisine to Chattanooga.

When Uma asked if I’d like to try one of her sushi dishes, I told I’d never eaten sushi because I was leery of consuming raw fish. She smiled, left, spent a few minutes behind the counter, and then returned with her Philadelphia Roll, which is made with smoked salmon, avocado and cream cheese.

My first bite was a revelation. The combination of salty and smoky flavors and the creamy textures made the sushi one of the best foods I’d ever eaten. When I expressed this to Uma, she smiled again and bowed.

Her husband arrived as Uma was straightening herself and probably noted what I imagine was the familiar look of awe on my face. He grinned and with gleaming eyes said, “David, do not become hooked on her food. I have warned you.”

It was too late. I’d already decided to return the following day to try the udon.

Bento-Ya is a genuine treat for the North Shore community and the people who work in the shops on Frasier Avenue. Not only is the food incredible, the atmosphere is relaxing and the prices will cause – as the menu states – “no pains at all to your purse.”

Best of all, I doubt you’ll have trouble remembering what you had for lunch or dinner the following day.

Bento-Ya is located at 111 Frazier Avenue and is open weekdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m., and weekends from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.