Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shojin: Not-so-new organic vegetarian food

A few months ago, I pondered the idea of raw fish becoming "extinct" in sushi bars.
It's a dilemma for me: I do love fish, but I also worry about sustainability, and the impacts to the eco-system of my eating habits and pleasures.

So I was pleased to hear about Shojin, a Little Tokyo eatery that focuses on organic, natural, vegan Japanese cuisine.
(Thanks to Monica V. for the tip!)

The phrase "Contemporary Organic Fusion Cuisine" on the web site's Menu page made me cringe a bit, but when I clicked on the "Why Shojin" tab, I was reminded that this type of food is actually more ancient Japanese than trendy.

The photos at top, of little dishes of cooked vegetables, actually depict some of my favorite Japanese foods (stewed pumpkin, tofu, shiitake mushroom), and the "What's Shojin cuisine?" section explains that this is "very traditional Japanese cuisine and originally Buddhist vegetarian cooking."

The web site explains that Japanese-style Shojin cooking is believed to have originated during the 13th century. A Buddhist Zen sect leader who had trained in China brought back Chinese cooking techniques and practices, thus creating a new Japanese cooking style with innovations like frying and deep frying and using miso, soy sauce and vinegar seasonings.

So, like the Fishlips sushi truck, Shojin's vegan organic cuisine is actually an old concept that is new again, revised with contemporary touches.

I got a chance to visit Shojin recently, and while this isn't a sushi place (and in fact has very limited sushi offerings), the overall menu is well prepared, very reasonably priced and definitely more tasty than what you sometimes get at mainstream vegan eateries.

Shojin is a fairly small, cozy place located on the top floor of a three-story shopping center. But the restaurant's interior is nothing like a typical mall shop; it's decorated in an eclectic, warm and artsy style that makes you feel like you're in an European bistro.
The young, attractive waiters were soft spoken and very accommodating.
The menu is plentiful - numerous pages with photos of the dishes, presented in a slim notebook binder.

We started with the pumpkin croquette appetizer (about $6), served with a light tomato sauce.
The flavors were mild and comforting, the texture a nice mix of crunchy and smooth.

We also had a small dish of miso eggplant (which we failed to photograph because I tore into it so quickly!), for about $5.
I love traditional miso eggplant with its great mix of salty and sweet flavors, bound together by meaty eggplant.
The Shojin version was good, but not noteworthy. The dish tasted very fresh, with the roasted veggies (not solely eggplant - I think there was some squash in there, too) very flavorful but almost not cooked enough - too crunchy in texture. Traditional miso eggplant is stewed, allowing the flavors and textures to mellow and meld. I specifically love the comfort-food texture of it.

For our "entrees," my friend Samantha and I wanted soba (buckwheat noodles), but we also decided to split a Shiitake and Avocado Roll ($5.25) as a "side" (pictured at top of post).
This is one of a handful of sushi rolls offered; there's also a "Caterpillar Roll" with avocado and barbecue seitan (wheat gluten meat substitute), covered in sauce.
I prefer non-sauced rolls, and the traditional salty flavors of Shiitake mushroom and konbu (seaweed) cooked in a sweet soy sauce, rolled with avocado in a brown-rice roll flecked with sesame seeds, hit the spot.

Finally, our soba dishes came out.
I had the Yamaimo Ume Soba ($10.45), a traditional favorite of mine: Buckwheat noodles in a cold soup topped with gooey-starchy mountain potato, ume (sour plum) paste, radish sprouts and seaweed slivers.
Very refreshing, with the tangy-salty Japanese flavors that I love.

Sam had the Spicy Tofu Soba ($9.95) with buckwheat noodles in a spicy miso soup with tofu and ground veggie "meat."
This was clearly a version of the Chinese-style mabo dofu, in which tofu cubes are covered in a sauce of spicy ground pork - sorta like the Asian version of Bolognese sauce.
I'd like to come back for this comfort-food soba now that the weather is getting colder.

The lengthy menu also had some curry dishes that looked good (Japanese curry is milder in spice and sometimes almost sweet; I'm curious what the flavors are at Shojin), and also some lovely bento box combinations I'd like to try sometime.

As you can tell from the prices I listed, this filling meal cost us about $25 each, including tip.
While this type of food will never be an adequate substitute for sushi, the flavors are nostalgic and comforting, and it's further comforting to know the chef is using organic, natural and fresh ingredients.
This will definitely be a stop-in spot for me on my visits to Downtown L.A., and may become a good meeting spot for my vegetarian friends.

333 S. Alameda St., Suite 310
(Little Tokyo Shopping Center 3F)
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Smacking my Fishlips!

fishlips temariYES! At long last, I was able to catch up with the gleaming raw-fish truck when it stopped in San Pedro today.

As you can see in the above photo of the temari (ball-shaped sushi), the quality is very good, especially when you consider it comes out of a truck. The salmon and hamachi (yellowtail) was the best catch of the day, both buttery smooth and so fresh and so clean-clean in flavor.
And the pricing was just right.

This is NOTHING like the packaged sushi at grocery stores - this is the real deal, freshly prepared for each order by an experienced sushi chef whose counter just happens to be in a well-equipped RV.

Of course, it's also not the sublime, eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head amazing sushi that you do have to pay a bit more for.
But note the sign on the back of the truck:
sushiman sticker

I've been dying to try Fishlips since July, when I first heard about it, checked out their web site and read several stories about the business.
First clue that this would be authentic: The charming broken English on the web site.

I also liked what I read in blog reviews about the clean, simple, high-quality but affordable sushi, and how they offered temari, a Kyoto-style sushi shaped in a ball rather than in the finger-shaped nigiri style.

And finally, one really good story/review in Grub Street noted that Fishlips owner Takeshi Kimura (TK) wasn't simply following the mobile food trend when he started Fishlips earlier this summer. He actually was harking back to sushi's roots, back in Japan's Edo era, when sushi was sold and served from carts.
Yes, sushi was originally fast food. The modern-day sushi bar was actually established after World War II, TK told Grub Street.

Anyway, I was intrigued. But because the truck locates mostly in Central and West L.A., I had a hard time making time to check it out.
I even wrote an impassioned e-mail to Fishlips, begging them to come to Long Beach, where I could help scout locations AND rally customers:
"We are in dire need of good sushi in Long Beach - all we have now in this big city is mediocre, mainstream, 'Banzai Crunchy Creamy Roll'-type places targeted at college-age sushi-novice diners.
We Rawfishionados desperately need your fresh, simple, high-quality offerings!"

TK-san wrote back immediately:
"Yokoi-san, Thank you very much for inquiry.
Yes, we are thinking to come over Long Beach.
Only we have to research that we have to take extra health permission from city of Long Beach. (Only Long Beach, Pasadena, Vernon request it.) ... We are considering about Long Beach for any reasons. (Close to our office, good for lunch & night time.)"

Luckily, I didn't have to wait until they got that extra health permit for my first taste of Fishlips. The truck was invited to the VUE condo tower in San Pedro, as part of a small health fair the tower organized, mainly for its residents, but open to the public.
The truck was parked right outside the VUE lobby door when Brooke and I got there, excited and hungry, around 12:30 p.m.
NO CUSTOMERS WERE IN SIGHT. Brooke and I practically jumped up and down in glee.
The truck is, indeed gleaming. There are signs - both handmade and on a flat screen - hawking various "sets" that include rolls and temari.

Temari is all Brooke and I were interested in. Mr. TK was taking orders at the window, and we asked him what he recommended as the best fish of the day.
The salmon and the hamachi, he said, after consulting with the sushi chef.

For our first round, we ordered one order (2 pieces) each of the salmon, hamachi, regular tuna, tuna tataki and unagi temari, which came to about $13.50.

We also ordered two cans of hot green tea, which came out nicely warm - just like in vending machines in Japan, where you can choose hot or cold cans.

Our order was ready in about 5 minutes. We sat down on a concrete ledge near the VUE entry and dug in.

We first tried the maguro, which was lovely looking but tasted meh:
Fortunately, everything else was MUCH better, including the rice (the use of Koshihikari brand rice is proudly promoted on the Fishlips web site - "Japan's No. 1 Brand") and the wasabi, which had a good taste, not just heat, and made us almost think it was fresh ground stuff.
(It wasn't - we asked. It's just higher-quality powdered stuff than what you usually get.)

The unagi, broiled to tender perfection, was topped with a lovely light sauce:
The hamachi - almost translucent and silky good:
For our second round, we ordered more hamachi, salmon, unagi and maguro tataki temari (the photo at top of post), and then Brooke noticed a "Long Beach Roll" on the menu, and asked why it was named after our city.

Mr. TK called the jovial sushi chef over, and he explained that the chef who originally created it lived in Long Beach at the time.

We decided to give it a try. It's a roll with tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber and Krab in the middle, topped with that lovely hamachi, splashed with ponzu and a dab of red chili sauce:
Tasty, but really "for Cooked-fishionados," noted Brooke. Yes.
And the pieces were large and hard to eat. I deconstructed it and enjoyed the yummy fish off the top first, and then picked my way through the middle.

Speaking of hard to eat, one note: The ping-pong-ball-sized temari is darn cute, but it can be a bit hard to pick up with chopsticks; the sushi sorta falls apart.
So best to grab it and stuff it in your mouth quickly, or perhaps even use your fingers, as sushi originally was meant for.

Overall, a pretty satisfying lunch for 2 for about $35 total (less than $20 each!).
Fishlips is the perfect sushi fix when you're in a hurry and just want some fresh-tasting fare - sort of like getting a really good, freshly made sandwich with quality ingredients from a mom-and-pop cafe or deli.

But with its limited menu, it won't fully satisfy like a full sit-down sushi bar will.

I'd rate Fishlips 3.5 stars for the quality and its reasonable prices.

And I'll keep searching for Long Beach locations, and perhaps even research the city's health permit requirements for TK-san, in hopes of getting the truck in my neighborhood soon.