Just a scant few steps into Akai Hana, prospective lunchers are confronted with compartmentalized trays that, like ocular magnets, attract all visual attention and then drum up the notion of edible sculpture.
One tray proclaims it's the Lunch Box of the Day, the other nominates itself as the Lunch Box of the Week. That they are but a couple of the bentos offered here - all of which are nicely priced and fun to eat - makes Akai Hana an inspired stopover for a midday meal.
If you're not familiar with Akai Hana, it means "red flower" in Japanese, and it's the name Restaurant Japan chose to retitle itself with a couple of years ago - even though the eatery by and large remains the same. Since I've enjoyed a few of the lunch boxes there recently, I thought I'd give you a shout out about them.
Akai Hana is a casual place, with predictably minimalist Japanese aesthetics (except for the music sometimes - anyone for Brahms and sushi?).
1173 Old Henderson Rd., Northwest Side
Here that partially translates into an embrace of clean linearity - so decorative, slatted chunky-line segments pop up a lot, like on blond wooden tables and their rhyming, free-standing partitions. There's some other subtle touches, too, like dark wood niches with deep recesses where flowers sedately peek out of tiny vases.
That sense of harmony, of "fittedness," of balance in enclosure extends to the bentos. As does a sense of playfulness in those trompe l'oeil lunch boxes, which have multi-hued, molded-plastic jigsaw-puzzle "dishes" that are actually all of one piece.
Before I briefly describe some of the contents of two recommended bentos (which come with a decent miso soup and a so-so salad), I should mention that at Akai Hana, as elsewhere, Japanese cuisine is frequently as much about appearance, texture and variety as it is about flavor - sometimes even more so.
OK, in the vegetarian "Healthy Box" ($10), I got: hijiki - funky, mildly sweet, stubby black strands of seaweed with a slight fishiness; an excellent mixed veggie tempura; crunchy pickled radish; some cold, simply steamed carrots and mushrooms; a big mound of brown rice; and two "boxes" of crusty fried tofu with a thick, sweet-and-salty glaze.
While that provided plenty of style and flavor, I liked the Lunch Box of the Week ($13) even better. That one had: excellent crunchy panko-encrusted fried biggie shrimp; a bulky block of tofu with a soft jiggly interior and a lightly fried exterior heavily slathered with hoisin sauce; grilled chicken drenched in lively, salty teriyaki; two slabs of top-notch, ruby-red tuna sashimi; one piece each of beautiful, buttery salmon sashimi and raw whitefish; and an unusual dessert - a wiggly cube of neutral-tasting, gray "Jell-O" embedded with multi-hued tapioca beads and sweet azuki beans.
Man, that sure beats the hell out of a boring old burger and fries, doesn't it?