Dining Reviews

Bye Bye Benten!

dining bentensBenten closing, plus Award-winning gin, a massive burrito and chocolate review

After 30 years, through thick, thin, and even an earthquake, Mieko Hawkes and her business partner/sushi chef Isao Sugawara made sushi specialties for the downtown Santa Cruz audience. And now, after 30 years of maguro nigiri, endless tobiko with quail egg, and more than a few thousand donburi bowls, Benten Japanese Restaurant is closing its Pacific Avenue doors on Jan. 31. Yukie Hawkes emailed me that her mother and her partner have seen “a whole generation of young children who didn’t know what edamame or California rolls were, who are now bringing their own children who are already sushi savvy.” As a devoted sushi addict, I say Arigato to Benten for all of its delicious years of service.

So, you had better get in there quick for your final Benten hamachi fix—and, if you’re interested, Benten will be having an inventory and furniture sale in February. Think outside the bento box!

Venus Spirits Gin Wins Good Food Award

Congratulations to high-spirited entrepreneur Sean Venus, whose feisty Venus Spirits Gin Blend No. 01 is a winner in the 2015 Good Food Awards. The Good Food Awards showcases top American artisan and craft food producers and Venus Spirits Gin Blend No. 01—certified organic, by the way—was a top scorer in the blind tasting. If you’re wondering what’s in the blend of Blend No. 01, we can tell you that among the 10 different herbs, fruits, and botanicals you’ll detect fresh juniper, lemon, ginger, and lavender—and other mystery ingredients, as well. Look for Venus Spirits’ small-batch spirits including El Ladrón Blue Agave, Wayward Whiskey (scheduled to be released any minute now), and, of course, the award-winning gin, at your favorite fine spirits shop.

The California Burrito: Part I

My UCSC students are all mad for this mega-creation called the California burrito, a burrito that is—I kid you not—packed with french fries! So I went to La Cabaña on Mission Street last week and ordered one of these ginormous creations. For $7.95 I got a massive tube of flour tortilla, roughly 3 inches by 8 inches, packed with guacamole, fries, salsa, cheese, sour cream, and shredded pork. I loved the hugeness of the portion—lunch for three normal humans or one surfer—but let’s just say that fries packed into a lavishly proportioned tortilla is way more carbs than I can wrap my head around. So many ingredients amounted to flavor confusion, in my humble opinion.

Chocolate Epiphany

Admit it, you love the trending dark chocolate bar with almonds and sea salt. So do I. So my team compared three versions, each roughly $3, and here’s what we found. Numero uno was the Cocoalove 55 percent chocolate bar. Creamiest mouthfeel, large almond chunks, slightly sweeter than the others, and, hence, providing sexy contrast with the salt crystals. A very close second was Theo organic fair-trade version made of 70 percent dark chocolate with Himalayan pink salt. This bar also had wonderful smooth texture, but the saltiness was not as distinct as in the Cocoalove version. Coming in third was the 72 percent cacao-infused Endangered Species bar. It offered great balance and plenty of sea salt. The slightly bitter finish might appeal to many palates, as would the hint of vanilla and more angular central core. This sea salt and almond bar also offered plenty of crunchy sea salt. The darker chocolate bars were both surprisingly smooth and lacked the soapy after-taste of many intensely dark chocolate creations. But my team came back again and again to the well-rounded Cocoalove sea salt and almond bar (which is my house brand), with the Theo a brilliant runner-up. Fieldwork on this subject is arduous, and ongoing!

CREDITS ROLL Chef and co-owner of Benten Japanese Restaurant, Isao Sugawara, prepares sushi at the restaurant which will close on Jan. 31, after 30 years of service. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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