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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  1. Wonderful post, Iris. Makes me want to go try this right now! I love your descriptions of each item, it really helps me savor the ideas.

  2. Hey Iris,

    I love your blog review and photos, especially of those Soba noodle bowls which I have yet to try. The food I have tried has been pretty amazing. Plus Shojin contributes to non-profit and community events, supports local artists. So a trip to Shojin, nourishes the tummy and the heart.

  3. Hello, Iris!! This is Oriya.
    Pictures you took are very nice. Japanese food I love the most is Soba, so I will go there when I go to LA downtown.

  4. Hi, this is Shojin Restaurant!
    love to announce our upcoming valentine's day special course!

    2010 Valentine’s day Special Course
    Feb 13th (Sat) 17:30~22:00
    Feb 14th (Sun) 12:00~22:00
    Valentine’s day special course:
    Dinner $37.50 per person
    Five course (Appetizer, Soup, Salad, Entrees, Dessert) + Aperitif and Coffee

    “Love is in the Air” Special two weeks from Shojin
    During Feb 15th (Monday) through 28th (Sunday)
    We are offering very special “Wall Art Show” by Sarah Williams and
    “Romantic Date Nights” course that a couple can enjoy together.