The wonderful fussiness of Japanese cuisine results in some truly artful presentations. There’s so much attention to detail in some dishes, it feels almost like an offense to sully them with a knife and fork.
This attention to detail is abundantly evident at Magokoro, a four-year-old restaurant located in a strip mall on Menaul. You see it in the two peas and small pile of picked radish atop a precisely molded pile of rice in a bowl of curry. It’s there in the half-moon-shaped pieces of panko-crusted mackerel, the tail fins sticking out, leaned against a bowl of dipping sauce. Most notably, it shines in teishoku, the eat-in version of a bento box, the myriad items each occupying their own plate across a lacquered serving tray.
Five days a week, Magokoro – the word means sincerity in Japanese – opens for lunch, closes for a couple hours and then reopens at dinner with a different menu based around bowls of ramen. The space is quite small. During a recent lunch, the dozen or so tables were occupied, and a couple of lone diners hunched over their food at the bar. The music – soothing, New Age-y stuff – was accompanied by the discordant sounds of a guy scraping food off plates in the hallway next to the kitchen.
The lunch menu has great variety, starting with about a dozen small plates like potstickers and dumplings costing from $4 to $7.75. Aji fry ($6.50), a traditional Japanese dish of mackerel deep fried in panko breading, offers a chance to try a fish not often seen on menus around here. The frying is well executed, leaving a crunchy panko sheath over the oily, marbled flesh of the fish. The textural contrast is compelling even if the fish’s strong flavor takes some getting used to.
Lunch entrées pair rice with proteins like the deep-fried breaded pork known as tonkatsu. A subset of the menu is devoted to Japanese curry, a variation adapted from the British in the 19th century. It’s a different breed than other Asian curries, skewing more to the beef gravy end of the spectrum in flavor and consistency. Magokoro offers it with mixed greens, white rice and a choice of proteins or vegetables for $11.95. I tried the bare bones option: just curry and rice ($6.50). The heat in the curry was noticeable but easy to tolerate, and it paired so well with rice I understood why the Japanese consider the two inseparable.
Teishoku, which means set meal in Japanese, is the star of Magokoro’s lunch menu. You get a centerpiece like tempura or pork along with rice, miso soup and several sides and condiments. Each item occupies its own plate or bowl.
The shrimp and vegetable tempura ($12.95), was excellent, the shrimp stretched and straightened before being dipped and fried in tempura batter. The result is a delicate, almost fragile coating that still manages to adhere to the food and provide a nice crunch. Both the shrimp and vegetables like sweet potato, green beans and onion benefited from a dip in the wasabi salt, a powdery, pale green spice that packs a wallop.
The three sides chosen by the chef on this occasion included a small bowl of red chile chicken, tender pieces of chicken breast served cold. A bowl of pickled cabbage provided some sour, crunchy notes, and a block of tofu with miso-ginger glaze brought an almost dessert-level sweetness.
Drinks ($2.50) include Japanese favorites like Calpico, a fermented, milky colored beverage that tastes like vanilla yogurt, and Ramune, a carbonated beverage with a marble in the bottle to preserve the fizz. Mochi ice cream ($4), a trio of chocolate, strawberry and orange wrapped in sweet rice dough and served on a wooden tray, is an ideal finish to the meal. Each piece is cut in half for sharing.
The server during the lunch rush was exceptionally courteous if overburdened. He had to take orders, serve, bus tables and cash people out. Just one more person up front would have speeded things up considerably.
Thankfully, the dishes were worth waiting for. The kitchen staff at Magokoro lavishes much care on the food, and it tastes as good as it looks.