The Skeptical Diner: Obento-ya

Finally taking a hint from the omnipresent katebauer of Chowhound’s Midwest board, I got out to the new Japanese sushi and robata place in Dinkytown, Obento-ya.

Superlatives are the crutch of a weak writer, but bombs away: Damn. This place is a gem.

The decor is modern and restrained, capturing the elegant minimalism that typifies an upscale Japanese eatery; that said, you won’t feel uncomfortable strolling in wearing street clothes. An open kitchen dominates the cozy room — part of the fun of ordering robata is watching your chef barbecue the tiny skewers of delicious meat.

And oh, those tiny skewers. All manner of moist, tender, grilled edibles including meatballs, scallion-adorned chicken pieces, and tempura or bread-crumb encrusted niblets are available by the skewer for anywhere between $1.25 and $4.50. The robata was universally delicious, and presents a unique opportunity for the sushi-hound eager to get apprehensive friends to visit a Japanese restaurant. Raw fish and vinegared rice? OK, that’s an intimidating stretch for a lot of people. But skewers of meat or vegetables? Even old-school country relatives can handle that.

As an afterthought, I ordered a couple items of sushi; both were good, particularly the humble $3 tekka maki (sushi roll), which possessed freshness and flavor more typical of a West Coast establishment than a Minneapolis sushi place.

Even dessert transcended expectations. Green tea macaroons came out looking like tiny little hamburgers — as unusual-looking as the pastries were, they were elegantly tasty.

Green tea mochi ice cream arrived split in half, adorned by two tiny, mysterious-looking wooden forks. Best of all, the mochi came with a light dusting of powdered green tea which added a vivid ripple of flavor and a welcome dash of texture.

The price for this exquisite and highly entertaining dinner for two: $35, including 20 percent tip. Obento-ya has made my top five Minneapolis/St. Paul restaurant list — with a bullet.

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