Japanese-themed market offers ready-to-heat treats


POSTED: Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The most excitement on the dining front isn't coming from new businesses, but from established restaurants hosting special events, from this week's wide-ranging Restaurant Week lunch and dinners, Town's Slow Food Tuscan dinner tonight to Hiroshi's seasonal and local-themed Monday night kaiseki dinners.

We've arrived at a time when most are trying to trim their dining bills on a daily basis, recasting restaurants as special-event venues.

The holidays will present many an occasion for get-togethers around restaurant tables. The flip side to that is the rush to take care of gift shopping, holiday mailings, party planning and other chores, leaving little time for a leisurely sit-down meal. All I know is simplicity at mealtime works for me at times like these, and supermarkets are evolving to fill a void, doing a super job at making quick, convenient, relatively inexpensive meals easy for the time-strapped customer.

At 3 months old, Nijiya Market in Puck's Alley — part of a California-based chain — offers an alternative to such standard supermarket fare as the whole roast chicken, an array of salads, poke and deli sandwiches.

Nijiya presents Japanese fare from nishime to sushi in petite portions suitable for one or couples. (Those with big families are likely still better served sticking to the refrigerated/frozen food aisles of Costco and Sam's Club.)

        Puck's Alley, 1009 University Ave. » 979-8977
        Food ;*;*;1/2
        Service N/A
        Ambience N/A
        Value ;*;*;*
        Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily Cost: About $3.99 to $6.99 for bentos
        Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.

Seeing the multiple clear-lidded trays is a beautiful and tempting experience, which makes it difficult to narrow your choices. The trays are set on refrigerated shelves, and the food must be reheated (unless you like cold food) before eating, so you don't get that warm, off the grill, out of the oven or deep fryer ambience that you'd get at the Shirokiya Food Court. Even so, the price is right, with many of the offerings set at $3.99, and it only takes a few samplings to figure out what works, what doesn't and what your favorites are.

MY EYES first settled on orbs of glistening takoyaki, doughy morsels with pieces of octopus in the center. Ideally, you'd find them hot off the grill at the point they seem to melt in your mouth. These held up to heating better than I thought. They seemed to be on special, at $2.99 for about a dozen. I didn't check the date, but those who insist on peak freshness should plan to show up at about 10 a.m., when bentos start pouring out of the kitchen and keep coming through the lunch hours. All labels are dated, and so far I haven't seen anything more than a day old.

If it's fish you're after, it's better to go with larger fillets that don't dry out quickly. An approximately 7-ounce salmon shioyaki fillet ($5.17) fared much better than a tray featuring four small pieces of miso butterfish ($3.99), which were chewy and overcooked.

There's also an array of nigiri sushi and chirashi combos with prices that beat many other outlets, with such popular selections as rainbow rolls, spicy ahi on rice and chirashi selections.

The most extravagant was the kaisen chirashi ($8.99), or rice bowl featuring three pieces of maguro, three pieces of the sweet shrimp amaebi, one piece each of scallop, hamachi, salmon, octopus, eel and more, plus the expected egg and a spoonful of pearly ikura, or salmon roe.

Deep-fried selections such as fried oysters ($2.99) and squid ($3.99) lose their crisp quickly and don't hold up well in the reheating process.

On the other hand, baked gyoza ($2.99) held up well; simmered pork belly ($3.49), though dry, was rich with its melty layer of fat and also came with a soy sauce-simmered whole egg; and pork or chicken meatballs ($3.99) had the fine, lean texture of restaurant-style tsukune.

To add a suitable end to your meal, check out the freezer section for packaged desserts, ranging from mochi ice cream to single-serve portions of tiramisu ($3.99).

Nijiya also is home to a sake and shochu selection and, if you feel inclined to cook, some of the most beautiful, organic produce you'll ever see, such as choi sum with leaves that seem to stand at attention.