More people are considering travelling abroad with the shortening of quarantine time when returning to Asia. I’ve been in Milan for over 2 month now.Sometimes I cook for myself, but sometimes I really miss those Asian flavours.
Born from the idea of Michelin one-starred Japanese chef Yoji Tokuyoshi, Bentoteca was initially conceived as a spin-off Japanese takeaway of his more formal restaurants as dining in became extremely hard in Milan due to the lockdown. “Bento” in Japan is the box containing the packed lunch to be consumed at school or at the office, and “enoteca” means a special type of local wine shop that originated in Italy. Bentoteca’s success was so great that even the chef himself didn’t expect that coming.
Unlike Paris, such a refined Italian-inspired Japanese gastropub is rarely seen in Milan as there isa lot smaller number of Japanese chefs in Italy than in France. Izakaya (informal Japanese bar) may not be a suitable place to describe Bentoteca as the food it serves is of the quality of what a Japanese fine-dining chef would want to eat at home.
Yoji Tokuyoshi served as a sous chef at the three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana in Italy for nine years and has later opened up his own Michelin-starred Italian restaurants in Milan (Ristorante Tokuyoshi) and Tokyo (Alter Ego). He was also invited to collaboration events as a visiting chef at Taipei 101. Unfortunately, Ristorante Tokuyoshi was hit by the pandemic in early 2020 when it had just moved to a new spot for expansion. A formula change was required.
Bentoteca was everything I expected. The seemingly simple tuna tartare with fresh salmon roe had fantastic texture and a bouncy blast to it. With the sushi rice and seaweed provided, you can assemble this tuna temaki by yourself and season with yolk and Japanese soy sauce. Both the ingredients and flavours were of premium quality.
Tokuyoshi mentioned that the tuna is sourced directly from fishermen in Portugal, a fact showing his insistence on fresh produce, or maybe it’s just hard for any Japanese chef to compromise at what they have been used to eat even when they are in another country. As passionate as he is, Tokuyoshi has also been committed to making no compromise on the ingredients he uses.
The handmade soba noodles were impressively chewy and intensely seasoned with bonito soy sauce. You might think most dishes are comfort food by a glance of the menu but technique and full attention to details can be read in every dish. Paired with small pieces of Japanese-style fermented squid to blend spiciness and fatty richness, the grilled beef marrow was spread over shokupan toast (Japanese bread made with milk) for an outstanding result.
Coupled with spinach mayonnaise and cabbage for layered texture,Katsusando featured sandwiches with veal tongue stewed at low temperature and fried to perfectly crispy and meltingly tender. The “white toast” or Japanese milk bread has been quite overlooked in Italy, but Bentoteca specifically works with a bakery that specialises in making this kind of fluffy white bread. The pigeon was marinated in sake wine, roasted and served with sardella sauce and purslane. Sardella is a mouth-watering delicacy that is made from newly hatched sardines, peperoncino, and wild fennel tips. Japanese flavour was not the starring role but still very delicious.
Soba Noodles/Fermented Squid/Pigeon
Yakitori were chicken skewers marinated in koji and eel cooked on the grill, which I personally prefer slightly charred. Eel was one of the signature dishes when Tokuyoshi was working at Osteria Francescana, and Japanese people like to eat eel in summer.
The dessert was Japanese pancake filled with anko, strawberries, served with salted caramel and ginger ice-cream. Simply irresistible flavours, even to Italians!
Though I don’t think fine dining would be out of Tokuyoshi’s picture, Bentoteca was so popular that it was flocked with diners the whole night while we ordered a variety of interesting wines by the glass. The pandemic has changed a lot of things over the past two years, but little did he know that the idea of recreating hometown flavours would lead to such a huge success.
When I secretly asked Tokuyoshi if he was thinking about another fine dining restaurant, he gave me a mysterious smile. Guess it’s hard to give up after years of accumulated experience and hard work!
Chef Tokuyoshi(left)/Jocelyn 华姐(right)