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Accessible Sushi

Mieko Hawkes and Isao Sugawara
Robert Scheer

Pour What It's Worth: Mieko Hawkes, owner of Pacific Avenue's Benten Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, joyously pours a cup of sake for the restaurant's sushi chef Isao Sugawara.

Benten keeps on doing its comforting sushi thing

By Christina Waters

KEITH HAD JUST RETURNED from two months trekking in the Peruvian highlands and was absolutely rabid at the idea of sushi. Benten obliged us with glowing lanterns, a happy crowd clustered around the bar and even an empty table right where we could watch the comings and goings of this prime Pacific Avenue Japanese dining room.

Many of us remember, gratefully, that after the earthquake of '89, Benten was one of the few downtown businesses that valiantly pressed on despite all odds. We were happy to have access to well-made sushi and sauce-drenched tempura then--and we were happy to have it last week while enjoying the warmth of a shared flask of sake ($5.25).

After a long summer of exploring the Andes, you're entitled to all the sushi you can handle--at least that was my theory as we proceeded to order a hell of a lot of food, starting with gyoza and wakayame seaweed salad, plus sashimi, tempura and sushi. Despite some serious difficulties in communication with our pleasant but oft-absent waitress, we finally made our wishes understood. That would be the combination sashimi platter ($12.95), a Maui roll stuffed with unagi, avocado and macadamia nut ($4.50), the salads ($4.25) and the tempura ($8.25).

All of these complementary Japanese culinary groups arrived within moments of each other, allowing us to do something everybody loves doing at restaurants like Benten. We migrated--like lost tribes of soy-starved nomads--from dish to dish, foraging with fingers and chopsticks.

Gyoza were presented on a bed of lettuces, with spun daikon radish on the side ($4.75). They were impeccably crisp and non-greasy with a soft, sensuous, if mildly flavored, minced filling. They offered a fine texture treat when dipped into the soy and lemon sauce provided. The Maui rolls were pretty, though I could have used a few more macadamia nuts just to make the point that they were present at the party.

Our tempura was almost architectural in its presentation. Prawns emerged as elongated extraterrestrial shapes encrusted with an ethereal ultra-crisp batter--so crisp you could practically cut your gums on each bite. The yams were especially great, even with the watery dipping sauce.

But essentially the industrial-strength flash-fried coating overwhelmed us, and we moved on to our shimmering green salads and the sashimi combo platter, which--for the record--included such non-sashimi items as ebi (cooked prawns) and that faux crab stuff, as well as maguro, salmon, hamachi and tako. All these freshly cut seafood jewels arrived in a porcelain boat like deep-sea treasures--nice presentation and wonderful to eat after a momentary marinating in the wasabi and soy mixture Keith and I both busily whipped up on our little sauce dishes.

Well, on one little sauce dish, since it took 10 minutes or so for our waitress to return and be reminded, once again, about the other sauce dish. It was a busy night, and since she didn't know what a quail egg was, we gathered that there was a communication problem, as well as a training problem.

Keith drowned his disappointment over the quail eggs in an order of quivering, tumescent--let's just say it outright: decadent--uni ($4.25), the sea urchin roe, consumption of which tends to separate the men from the boys in the Western sushi bar context. Finishing up the last glistening strands of the sesame-dusted seaweed, which is one of the great dishes of summertime, I ended the meal with a classic maguro nigiri ($3.50), blue fin tuna like a velvet rose on a throne of sticky rice. Lovely, just lovely.

With a last wink at Benten's glowing full moon lanterns, we headed out in search of some very non-Japanese espresso. Given Benten's location, it was a brief search.

Phone: 425-7079
Address: 1541 Pacific Ave., SC
Hours: Lunch 12:30-2:30pm Wed-Mon., dinner 5:30-9:30pm
Cuisine: Japanese, sushi bar
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Cozy, unpretentious, casual, welcoming, colorfully decorated sushi bar with a cafe-style restaurant
Service: * Can be frustrating--lunchtime seems to manage a good flow, but on weekends expect to wait, and to reiterate orders--training of staff is a weak point.
Cuisine: ** Well-made sushi classics, friendly sushi chefs and bar action, nothing life-altering, but definitely satisfies that sushi craving
Overall: Benten keeps on keeping on, delivering the goods without a lot of fuss or hassle, and with good quality for the price.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Sept. 10-17, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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