Pull open the heavy front door of Ino Japanese Bistro in Richardson, and you're welcomed by a small stuffed penguin dancing happily on the spout of a smiling whale – in front of a backdrop of blue sky and sea, with two silly bunnies looking on from a sailboat.
It's a curiously cute tableau, one that changes with the seasons – a sweet, good-natured greeting in a neighborhood restaurant that's been quietly serving home-style Japanese cooking for 17 years.
One night as I set chopsticks to a small appetizer of beautiful, shiny-skinned marinated herring bites tangled with nanohana (a rapini-like Japanese green) and dotted with tiny, crunchy-bitter herring roe, I kicked myself for waiting so long to set foot inside.
Because Ino is just footsteps from one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Bambu Thai-Asian Cuisine, I'd long been intrigued, but it always looked so forlorn, not exactly inviting. Then a few months ago I was tipped off that Tei Tei Robata Bar owner Katsutoshi Sakamoto, one of Dallas' best Japanese chefs, is a weeknight regular there. Before long I was nibbling that herring – and savoring course after course of an elaborate dinnertime shokado bento box.
First came tsukemono, the pickled napa cabbage that appears on every table. Then miso soup, followed by sashimi – slices of tuna, yellowtail and salmon, on a shiso leaf with daikon. Nothing fancy; the sashimi was good quality, though not what you'd get in a great sushi bar. It reminded me of the sashimi I grew up eating in low-key Japanese family restaurants in Los Angeles.
What was special was the shokado (square, four-compartmented) bento box itself. Tasty bites of fried whitefish filled one. Braised vegetables – lotus root, gobo (burdock), bamboo shoot, nanohana and more – beckoned from another. Even the rice – beautifully seasoned with grated umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) and shaped into a flower – was wonderful. A bowl in the fourth offered up myriad small treasures: a ring of tempuraed squid; charred eel wrapped around mackerel; a wasabi shumai; a warm slice of teriyaki salmon; cool slices of good tamago (sweet omelet).
But wait – there was more!
With the shokado bento came a chawanmushi – a savory egg custard with a delicate, trembly texture filled with carefully cooked prizes: shrimp, ginkgo nut, shiitake mushroom and chicken. And finally dessert: green tea ice cream topped with a dollop of sweet adzuki (red beans). Forty dollars and change may sound like a lot for a bento box, but this was worth it.
Sometimes the place is lively, filled with couples on dates, families with young children, older folks out for an evening or business lunch. Many, perhaps most, of the diners are Japanese.
But don't be surprised if you find yourself alone in one of the two small dining rooms, especially on a Saturday night (it tends to be busier on weeknights). You'll be seated at one of the imposing bare wood dining tables, on a heavy oak fiddle-back chair that would be right at home at Grandma's house.
In fact, Ino is Grandma's house. Tamako Ino, who runs the welcoming dining room and owns the restaurant with her husband, chef Toyoji Ino, has six grandchildren. And that's Tei Tei chef Sakamoto's 7-year-old daughter Sarah in a framed photo behind the bar – she's a regular, like her dad. "She calls me Grandma!" says Tamako.
Lunchtime can be busy (or deserted!). The featured set menus and bento boxes aren't inexpensive – they go for $14.75 to $27. But they're carefully prepared; all include a small salad, miso soup and rice, and sometimes they're outstanding. I particularly loved a $20 hisago (double-decker) lunch box, the bottom chamber cradling that lovely umeboshi- scented rice and the top filled with assorted fried, braised and sautéed treasures similar to the dinner bento, plus potato salad. I look forward to returning for one of the noodle dishes; Tamako Ino is very proud of the champon – Chinese vegetable noodle soup – which looks delicious.
At dinnertime, the choices are many. From the extensive list of appetizers, I enjoyed tender kani (crabmeat-filled) shumai, and a simple cold tofu dish, the soft squares covered in bonito flakes and sliced scallion (add soy sauce at the table). A dish of yanagawa – eel and burdock baked saucily with egg – was delicious comfort food that could easily have worked as a main course.
An elaborate, beautiful and copious sukiyaki was attentively cooked tableside in broth – well-marbled sliced beef, baby bok choy, napa cabbage, scallions, mushrooms and more – but it was on the pricey side ($35.50 per person), and not terribly interesting. And the sushi is nice enough, but not what I like to order here.
More interesting are the "course dinners," such as a fine (and simple) grilled mackerel preceded (like all the course dinners) by miso soup. After the soup comes salad or cold tofu, then a sushi roll, the grilled fish and either potato croquette (which I didn't try) or gyoza. For $30.50, it's a nice deal.
If you're tempted to spring $80 per person to try the omakase, consider this: Ours started with a large and incredibly vinegary shot of slimy mozuku seaweed, gooey yamaimo (mountain potato) and uni. "I think we're being tested," my husband said after suffering through it. The next course was marvelous (and gorgeous): bites of stuffed lotus root, mushroom-filled tamago, pickled radishes, moro q (cucumber with fermented miso), and aji (horse mackerel) done almost jerky-style. Cold corn soup with shrimp and seaweed; sashimi; braised vegetables; grilled ayu (a shiny fish related to smelt) and tempura followed. It was a lot of food, but with the exception of the corn soup, which was lovely, most of it didn't quite dance on my palate.
Really, this is a place for homier pursuits.
Under Tamako's watchful eye (and she often jumps in to serve), great attention is paid to details in the dining room – from the lovely flowered chopstick rests to making sure sake glasses are filled. Hospitality thrives here.
I'm eager to return – and very soon.
Ino Japanese Bistro (3 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (lunch boxes and multicourse lunches $10.75 to $27, noodle and rice dishes $9.50 to $12.95; dinner appetizers $5.75 to $23; main courses $21.25 to $50; multicourse dinners $22.75 to $40.25; dessert $5; omakase dinner $80 per person and up)
Service: Attentive, careful and thoughtful
Ambience: Feels like you're eating in Grandma's formal dining room
Noise level: Absolutely quiet
Location: Ino Japanese Bistro, 1920 N. Coit Road (at Campbell Road), Richardson; 972-889-3200;
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 to 2 p.m., dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, sake, shochu and a few whiskeys
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50