The object is, in itself, a thing of beauty. A simple wooden box, wrapped in kanji-printed paper, with a pair of chopsticks tucked into a bow. To get one you have to reserve ahead, then make the journey to the Row, an odd Angeleno retail complex, and pass through the billowing noren that marks the doorway. Behind a counter is Brandon Go, in his crisp white coat, head bowed over the afternoon’s bento box orders. He hands it to you quietly, and you leave, off to find an inviting patch of L.A. sunlight. Lift the lid and draw a breath: Inside is a gorgeous tableau with slices of cool, rich black cod; dashimaki tamago, layers of rolled omelet as delicate as a mille-feuille; a tiny snow-crab claw; the sweetest shrimp shinjo (dumpling); translucent slices of Japanese cucumber cured in sesame and salt; and a few spare slices of fat-ridged duck, a vivid wild pink. This is just lunchtime at Hayato.
Go got his start working at his father’s Japanese restaurant in Seal Beach, California, at the age of 15. “I was exposed to knife skills and the hand work of making sushi at a young age, and it has helped me through the rest of my life,” says Go. “It’s like playing a musical instrument or learning a language—easier to retain if you start young.” His parents wanted him to be a doctor, so Go got a degree in molecular biology, but cooking soon overshadowed medical school applications. He began spending more time in Japan, staging at restaurants, soaking in the complexity of the country’s cuisine, from kaiseki to osechi—the extremely detailed boxed meals traditionally served on New Year’s. “Making osechi can test the limit of human endurance,” says Go, who worked on the boxes at Tokyo’s three-Michelin-star Kagurazaka Ishikawa restaurant. “You start on Christmas, and it’s 15, 17, 19 hours a day leading up to the New Year. But every single thing in the box is special. That was the starting point for what became the Hayato bento.”
Dinner at Hayato is an intimate kaiseki menu that showcases pristine seafood using the five primary Japanese cooking methods (sashimi, grilling, steaming, frying, and simmering). But it’s those lunchtime bentos, that methodical grace, that captivated me. Go approaches the boxes like a tasting menu, adapted for a takeout context: Each component must be strong enough to stand on its own but also complement everything else, diners must be able to eat the items in any order, and they can’t degrade as they reach room temperature.
It’s a gorgeous gift, an impeccable argument for cooking as an art form, and a reminder of the depth of Japanese cuisine, a surface we’ve just barely begun to scratch in American restaurants.