I didn’t discover them. Which is pretty damning since Bento-Ya has probably been serving them on Sheikh Zayed road for the past fifteen years. All credit goes to the blogger behind Dubai Bites, who within two minutes of my post on facebook: Impromptu Lunch Plan - anyone wanna join for Bentoya (Japanese) near DIFC metro today?...responded with: Can't today but I LOVE that place. order the Tsukune (chicken meatballs) or the fried Kaki (oysters) They also do a great katsu curry and have really yummy black sesame ice cream!
And so thanks to this quick ingenious blogger who graciously shared her beloved dishes with me, I came across the BEST MEATBALLS I have ever eaten.
Though in all fairness to other meatballs around the world, I rarely eat meatballs. Because let’s be honest, how exciting can meatballs be right?
WRONG. They can be ECSTACY-INDUCING-EXCITING. Here are those dusky globes of Tsukune, glistening with a salty, sweet, smoky, exhilaratingly intense teriyaki sauce, with a viscosity that was a couple of notches lower than the chocolatey brown fudge sauce that drizzles down the sides of your ice cream sundae.
With that first bite, I lapsed into a Ms. Universe moment – that climactic moment when the winner of the beauty pageant is finally announced, when you see dainty hands fluttering instantly to the shocked winner’s face – a face contorted with surprise, disbelief, joy…a face that may even have the faintest tear trickling down its cheek. I experienced that moment mentally, intellectually, spiritually…(because my hands were preoccupied with tweezing up more meatball magic with my chopsticks and couldn’t do the Ms. Universe flutter up to my face.)
Remember the Oversimplified Food Experience Graph from my last post? That chart that I thought would have angry readers throwing tomatoes at me (resulting in a red splattered mess across their computer screens and then even angrier readers who realize that they didn’t just have to read a nonsensical post but now also have to clean up the smashed tomato mess)? The chart that ironically ended up striking a chord with more readers than I could have imagined (because who doesn’t love a little bit of geometric silliness?) If I had to peg the experience on that graph, it would be bang up there on the top left zone.
It’s not that my expectations were low – it’s just that my expectations were as close to Tsukune reality as rich boys driving monster trucks with over-sized tires in this city are to appreciating the importance of road safety [Mr. Unknown Immature Dude Driving The Monster Truck Who Nearly Drove Over My Baby Car This Evening And Who Is Probably Way Too Occupied Trying To Massacre Others On The Road Than To Read My Insignificant Blog, you bet, I’m talkin’ about YOU.]
(Stay tuned for my next post – ‘What happened when I faced the feminist army…unarmed.’)
Shebanx had the same reaction that I did. Except that in his case, the man dropped the meatballs…and physically executed the Ms. Universe Hand Flutter. It was a very humbling sight.
If you order the meatballs in a bento box like I did, you get them served on a bed of crunchy hair-like strands of shredded cabbage (or was it lettuce? Someone dissect the gobsmacking crunchiness behind those veggie hair for me PLEASE.) And lest you need to dip every teriyaki-drenched meatball morsel in more teriyaki sauce, they’ve provided a little extra pool of it in the box, with a spot of pungent mustard for an added kick. Everything else in that bento box – the cold sweetish noodles, tamago, creamy potatoes, pickled radish – all of it was excellent. But the meatballs stole the show and had me applauding for an encore after.
If like Shebanx, you order the meatballs as starters, they arrive on skewers with a dipping sauce of raw egg yolk that remained an untouched shadow of the magic teriyaki sauce that we asked for on the side. Make sure you ask them for extra sauce on the side when you order the starter – because this isn’t gloop they pour out of readymade bottles, this is the real, made-in-the-moment deal.
It took a LOT of willpower to not order the magic meatballs again for myself on this second visit, but the blogger at Scribblelicious had commanded me to try their grilled karubi. Thank God for Food Bloggers in this city (I promise, that was not my sorry attempt at self-promotion. I do love my fellow bloggers and all the secret restaurant tips they eagerly spill when asked.)
Another winner. Tender beef short ribs, with a subtle yet deep beefy flavor that intensified when rolled in salt and pepper, and with a rich sliver of fat that curled itself conveniently around the bone so that you could savor it right near the bone-licking end.
If Bento-Ya’s Tsukune is the young, hot-blooded but irresistibly sexy guy that you can't help but swoon over (aka Robert Pattinson.)…(sorry, did I totally kill this food analogy for anyone?), then Karubi is like the mature, complex man who enchants you over time with his profound words and excruciatingly expensive gifts (what’s that you say? Such men don’t exist? Well then, at least we have Karubi.)
After the Karubi, my Miso Ramen soup really couldn’t compare.
Shebanx didn’t even bother giving the soupy noodles a token chopstick twirl – such was the power of those magic meatballs. Another secret power of those meatballs is that they leave you powerless, speechless…and inordinately sleepy. I did a robotic sleep walk back to the metro after my first Tsukune encounter, and on my second visit, I was close to spearing Shebanx with my chopsticks because he’d suddenly ditched a post-dinner movie plan so he could…sleep. Mind you, the plan was ditched seconds after he’d inhaled the fourth globe of magic meatball goodness.
Two Bento-Ya trips in the past ten days clearly wasn’t enough. I ordered a massive Bentoya Special Bento box home two days ago to get a taste of their sashimi. Packaging of food deliveries is something I rarely talk about – but daaayaam this was pretty. Pretty bento box with little doll sauce bottles that I really chewed fingernails over before finally relenting to discard them. If I started collecting food memorabilia, I’d have to sleep out in the corridor.
The box was a success less because of the tuna and salmon sashimi…sadly, these were quite mediocre –I’ve definitely dipped fresher, silkier and more flavourful sashimi in my soy sauce elsewhere…but more because the puffy tempura batter coating the ebi (shrimp) and creamy eggplant slices was a collection of perfectly fried, hollow mini mountains that was a joy to climb, one salty crunch at a time . I had to slap myself on the wrists to avoid ramming the whole crunchy lot into my mouth at lunch time alone, but it was only after I had crunched through three swollen pieces of tempura and a couple of uninteresting pieces of also-deep-fried beef katsu, that restraint finally kicked in. I blame it on the chopsticks. Bad, gluttonous chopsticks.
Do you realize that I’ve still got to try the kaki (oyster) tempura and katsu curry and black sesame ice cream that Dubai Bites had inscribed in her original gospel-for-the-Bento-Ya-diner? I feel like my story with Bento-Ya has only just started. Fifteen years too late, but my Japanese love story, starring magical meatballs and profound slivers of grilled beef, finally starts to unravel in this city.