I met Gagan for the first time in San Francisco. Although we’ve been friends for about two years now, we’ve somehow never met, despite a few instances of being in the same city for a few days at a time. But he lives in San Francisco and the morning before I left New York, I wrote him a little note informing him of my arrival.
My fourth day there, he took me to one of his favorite restaurants: a vegetarian Japanese restaurant in the Mission called Cha-Ya. I know, vegetarian Japanese! I remember when my parents and their friends wanted to hold a vegetarian Japanese cooking party. They painstakingly came up with 6 creative dishes that would qualify as both vegetarian and Japanese. At this restaurant, the entire menu was vegetarian, and offered a variety of choices: soups, salads, noodles, entrees, and sushi.
We started with a milky, slightly sweet sake (pictured above). It was sharp in a nose-clearing way, but also mildly-sweet, and basically functioned as a palate-cleanser in between dishes.
Our first dish was veggie tempura. I am a tempura fan, especially broccoli tempura, because the skin is so crispy and the interior so mushy. It’s a fun contrast of texture. The other veggies in our tempura were: mushrooms, asparagus, eggplant, yam, carrots, and kabocha (Japanese squash).
We then ordered the Star Rolls- a special that night (pictured above). These were incredible looking rolls, filled with spinach, tofu, and asparagus, and then draped with sexy slices of avocado. Next were two different reverse rolls: avocado tempura, and shitake spinach. The avocado tempura roll was the best sushi I’ve tried so far. Avocado and tempura are two of my favorite foods and when they are tightly wrapped together in a roll, surrounded by sweet sticky rice, dipped in soy sauce and spicy wasabi and decorated with pickled ginger… yum.
Then the Tonchi Nasu arrived. Tonchi Nasu is eggplant stuffed with Satsuma potato, corn, hijiki (uncommon edible seaweed), carrots, and soybeans, lightly battered and deep-fried tempura style, and served in a ginger sauce. While this dish certainly looked interesting, I didn’t much care for the taste, which I had trouble discerning. I think the combined presence of the potato and eggplant overrode the other flavors present, though now, analyzing the ingredients, I’m not sure how much flavor the carrots and soybeans would have actually added. And the ginger sauce was thick but too subtle a flavor for the heaviness of the eggplant and potato. But it was a different dish to try.
Finally, the aesthetic stars of the meal: the Vegan Roll, Gagan’s favorite.
These were filled with spinach, cucumber, broccolini, pickled burdock, atsuage (pressed, deep-fried) tofu, seasoned shitake, pickled ginger and kampyo gourd. It was delicious but enormous, and tough to enjoy in one bite. However, more than one bite collapsed the roll, and then I was left eating tiny pieces of asparagus and carrot with my chopsticks.
Vegan roll: $6.75; Avocado Tempura roll: $5.30; Shitake + Spinach roll: $5.10; Vegetable Tempura: $8.50; Tonchi Nasu: $7.25.
Cha-Ya Vegetarian Japanese Cuisine is located at 762 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA. Tel: 415-252-7825.