Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Culinary Oasis – The Vegan, Macrobiotic, Japanese Cuisine of Shojin

While I'll never turn away a sexy plate of Foie Gras, or wonderfully unctuous Pork Belly, or succulent Lamb, sometimes I find myself looking for a little reprieve from all the meat-based dishes I love so much; a vacation for my palate, where I can take a break from all the intense eating and just relax. :) And so, every so often, I find myself seeking out good salads, cooked vegetable dishes, and tasty Vegetarian restaurants. A "Vegetarian restaurant" spans a pretty wide range of possibilities that may or may not appeal to everyone. I remember the first time I got dragged to a Vegetarian restaurant by some of my friends in the SGV: It was a Vegetarian Chinese restaurant on Valley and the dishes we ate were all some sort of "mock meat" (vegetable-based food that tries to have the look, taste and texture of real meat) Vegetarian equivalents of Chinese classics like "Pork Kidney" Sauteed with Basil. The Vegetarian "Pork Kidney" was so bizarre (and slightly off-tasting) that I shied away from places that served mock meat for years after.

But flash forward a few years, and thankfully (due to some Vegetarian friends and Hounds), I've been introduced to more and more decent-to-pretty-good Vegetarian and Vegan restaurants around So Cal. One such place would be Shojin, a Japanese Vegan restaurant that focuses on Natural and Organic cuisine with a Macrobiotic angle. (FYI: Macrobiotics is a way of eating that emphasizes whole grains (whole wheat, oats, brown rice, etc.), certain vegetables and beans.)

I had visited Shojin a few times last year and found some tasty items, but never got around to going back. But after a few too many enjoyable visits to Animal and to reverse the damage from The Gorbals and other intense meals, I found myself really wanting to take a break from it all, and so I found myself in front of Shojin again. (^_~)

Shojin marks the debut restaurant for Chef Kimiko Ikeda (prior to this, she had just graduated from the culinary program at the Kushi Institute on the East Coast). Chef Ikeda seems to draw inspiration from classic Japanese Shojin Ryouri (Vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), the modern Local Food movement, Organic and Natural ingredients and Macrobiotics. It should also be noted, the entire menu is Vegan.

Located inside the former Yaohan/Mitsuwa Plaza (now Little Tokyo Shopping Center), Shojin creates a soothing, comfortable space the moment you step inside their main dining room. It's reminiscent of a cute little sidewalk cafe in the Ebisu neighborhood of Tokyo, with modern artwork, simple decor and a great, rotating soundtrack quietly playing in the background (ranging from some wonderful Brazilian Jazz from Stan Getz / Joao Gilberto, to cool Ambient / Downtempo Electronica to good ol' Frank Sinatra).

Over the course of 7 visits, there's been a steadily improving and transforming menu at Shojin under Kimiko-san's guidance. During my first 2 visits, the menu was pretty basic with simpler items like Tomato, Basil & Cheese Sandwich and Crispy Seitan Katsu Sandwich, but over the course of this past year, the menu has been dramatically upgraded with more exciting small plates, entrees and desserts.

On the very first visit, I start off with a classic Matcha Genmaicha (Roasted Brown Rice and Green Tea with Finely Powdered Premium Green Tea).

There's a good grain fragrance and nutty quality to this aromatic Green Tea, making for a nice sipping accompaniment for the rest of the meal.

Their Miso Shiru (Miso Soup) uses an unpasteurized, naturally aged Miso made from Organic Rice (along with Soy Beans and Barley). The Miso actually tastes lighter and less intense than most local offerings. The Tofu and Wakame (Seaweed) provide the usual welcome textural contrasts with the soup, fresh and to the point.

Their Lunch Bento Box is offered with a variety of items to choose from for the main dish (accompanied by a few classic appetizers). I always love a good Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet), so I decide to try their Crispy Seitan Cutlet Bento Box, which is served with 3 Vegetable Side Dishes along with the main Crispy Seitan Cutlet.

Their Hijiki (Sea Vegetable) appetizer comes with the obsidian-colored lightly sweet and slightly briny vegetable along with Ninjin (Carrots) and Pickled Daikon Radish. It's an enjoyable light starter with a nice mix of tart, salty and sweet.

The second Vegetable side dish was the first thing that clued me in to Chef Ikeda's creativity: Kale with Tofu and Sunflower Seeds. The tender chopped Kale is mixed with a delicious Marinated Tofu and mashed together, creating this surprisingly delicious blend of flavors with the deep green leafy essence of the Kale supporting the soft Marinated Tofu, with a bit of bright nuttiness from the Sunflower Seeds.

But then their Kinpira Gobo (Sliced Burdock Root and Carrots marinated with Mirin, Soy Sauce) outshines them all with a vibrancy, nice crisp crunch and a good kick (due to the Cayenne Pepper). And in the case of less is more, the reserved sprinkling of Kurogoma (Black Sesame Seeds) offers the right amount of a fragrant counterpoint to the Burdock Root and Carrots. Wonderful.

The Crispy Seitan Cutlet with Homemade Miso Demi-Glace Sauce has a nice crispy, nutty exterior which gives this Cutlet an interesting similarity to a real Katsu (Cutlet), but the interior is a bit too soft and slightly gummy to be like the real thing. Shojin makes their own Seitan in-house - which is made from Wheat Gluten - and while it's just fine as a healthier lunch alternative, it's not making me give up a good Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) anytime soon. :)

The accompanying bowl of Organic Brown Rice is a California-grown Organic Short Grain Brown Rice, and it's cooked perfectly, nice and fluffy topped with a bit of Shirogoma (White Sesame), Konbu (Kelp) and Shiitake Mushrooms.

Their Tempeh Curry is a surprisingly nice rendition of a classic Japanese Curry dish, with Pan-Fried Tempeh (a Soybean-based food that has higher protein, dietary fiber and vitamin content than to Tofu) mixed with their made-from-scratch Vegetable Curry.

The Tempeh chunks are much more enjoyable than the Crispy Seitan Cutlet, softer and more pliable, and tasting more like meatier, more substantial Tofu than anything, but it's their Homemade Curry that stands out in this dish: Chef Ikeda's Curry recipe changes every time she makes it, tied to the whims of the local Farmer's Market and what's fresh for the day. But fundamentally it's a massive quantity of Farmer's Market Vegetables slowly cooked down with her proprietary mix of Curry Spices. She adds no flour or corn starch to thicken it; it's naturally thickened due to the long, slow-cooking process which is always nice. It's only lightly spicy, aromatic with a real vegetal / slowly stewed vegetable taste with each bite.

On another visit, we try a few more Bento Box items, starting with their Hamburg Steak and Garden Seitan Ball Bento Box.

A new Vegetable appetizer is included in this Bento Box: Kaiso Kyuuri Shiro Miso Salada (Seaweed Cucumber White Miso Salad). The 3 different types of Kaiso (Seaweed) provide a fun chewing experience along with the heartier, crunchier Cucumbers. The White Miso dressing is a decent match, but ultimately tastes like it could be paired with a more savory sauce.

The Garden Seitan Balls with Natural Ketchup shows off the versatility of their in-house made Seitan wheat meat, with a looser composition (similar to a real Meatball, but not quite there) than the Cutlet. Their Ketchup is also made-from-scratch, using Bell Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Garlic, Balsamic Vinegar, Maple Syrup, Sea Salt, Tamari and additional spices. It's a bit on the sweet side, but not overly so. Overall it serves as a good foil for the Seitan Balls.

Their Hamburg Steak with Soy Gravy Sauce doesn't fare as well, coming off as too salty. Additionally the Seitan base for this Hamburg Steak is too thick and dry. It should be noted that they now offer the Hamburg Steak with a new Tomato Gravy Sauce which hopefully alleviates the problems of the earlier version of this dish.

On my 3rd visit is when Shojin really started to get interesting: Chef Ikeda completely revamped the menu and incorporated a lot more variety and inspiration from different cuisines outside of Japan. I start with their standard Iced Green Tea, which is a non-sweetened, slightly bitter and oh-so-refreshing drink on a hot Summer's day. :)

We also try their Apple Detox Drink (Cane Juice, Cayenne Pepper, Ginger Juice mixed with Apple Juice). This is a great drink: Very outdoorsy, lightly sweet, a little spicy and really refreshing. Excellent. :)

If you prefer an even lighter drink, with even less natural sugar, their Green Tea Detox fits the bill, with a similar mix as the Apple Detox: Cane Juice, Cayenne Pepper, Ginger Juice mixed with Green Tea (instead of Apple Juice).

One of the entrees we order comes with a House Salad which features some fresh and vibrant Mixed Field Greens tossed with their homemade Dressing of Tomatoes, Onions, Garlic, Apple Juice, Maple Syrup, Miso, Tamari, Dijon Mustard and a few other ingredients. The Dressing stands out as well, being very light, with a delicate play of tart and sweet.

In the world of Sushi, I'm definitely not a fan of the Crazy-Dragon-Weeping-Tiger-Philly Cheese Fusion Rolls, but I was very curious about Shojin's selection of Vegan Sushi (it still sounds odd as I type those words, even after I've eaten it :). We decide to start with the simplest item from their list: Shiitake & Avocado Roll (Shiitake Mushroom and Konbu cooked in Sweet Soy Sauce, Avocado and Sesame Seeds).

I take a bite: Absolutely delicious! (^_^)

The Shiitake Mushrooms are *so* fragrant and woodsy and savory. The Konbu (Kelp) also absorbs just the right amount of their Sweet Soy Sauce to give it a touch of saltiness, and then the creaminess of the fresh Avocado adds this lush quality, and their perfectly cooked Organic Brown Rice mixed with Shirogoma (White Sesame Seeds) provides the final touch. There's no need for extra Soy Sauce or Wasabi or anything. Outstanding. :)

(Full disclosure: I *love* good Shiitake Mushrooms and its inherent flavors, so that probably adds to my love of this dish. :)

It should be noted that all the dishes at Shojin that have a Soy Sauce base thankfully doesn't suffer from being overly salty; it's actually quite the opposite and very light and more savory than salty. Shojin uses Osawa Organic Nama Shoyu from Japan, which is Soy Sauce made from Organically Grown Soybeans, Mountain Spring Water, Organic Whole Wheat and a certain type of Sea Salt. It's then aged in Cedar Wood Kegs before being bottled.

Their Sea Vegetable Salad (Mixed Sea Vegetables and Field Greens with Orange Miso Dressing and Roasted Almonds) is another good salad.

Mixing a few varieties of Kaiso (Seaweed) including Wakame, with the usual Organic Field Greens gives this Salad a nice silky and crisp interplay and Chef Ikeda's Orange Miso Dressing (Orange Juice, Miso, Brown Rice Syrup and Soy Sauce) has a bright, sunny Citrus base, but also features a great savory facet with the Miso and Soy Sauce, ending up a little more on the sweet than salty side. Great dressing.

Their Seitan Pepper Steak (Pan-Fried Tender Seitan Steaks seasoned with Black Pepper and Spicy Soy Sauce) arrives a few minutes later.

As underwhelming as their Seitan Cutlet was on my first visit, the Seitan Pepper Steak is the complete opposite: There's a great sear on these thin pieces of their homemade Seitan Steaks, with a real "meaty" texture with a good chew that's satisfying. The Pepper Sauce tends to be more on the bold Sweet and Salty which normally may be a turnoff for some, but it pairs nicely with the Organic Brown Rice and Steamed Vegetables, and in this case, really gives one dish on the menu a standout quality.

The Green Pesto Spaghetti is another of the new menu items, part of a new sub-section of the menu showing off Kimiko-san's love of Italian food.

This Vegan Pasta dish turns out to be an extremely light but herbaceous and tasty entree. Shojin's Cilantro Pesto Sauce is mixed with tender Kale and chunks of Cauliflower, Garlic, Chili and Pine Nuts. The Spaghetti is cooked perfectly al dente, the Kale and the Cilantro Pesto Sauce is a great combo as well.

Perhaps the only issue I have with this dish is that it's a bit too dry (just a little more Cilantro Pesto Sauce would be nice). But otherwise, it's a light, healthy alternative to the more standard versions of this dish.

On another visit, I start with their Sencha (Unground Green Tea), which tastes more green, grassy and bitter than the Matcha Genmaicha, but is still a nice tea to sip with the meal.

Out of Shojin's entire menu, their Shishito Pepper appetizer is the shining star and must-order item: Fried Shishito Peppers with Garlic, Organic Soy Sauce and topped with Nori (Seaweed). It's deceptively simple, but the execution and quality of ingredients really make it standout. The Shishito Peppers are *so* aromatic, and the quality Soy Sauce and Garlic really bring out the best flavor combination with the Shishito. My favorite item on the menu. Delicious! (^_^)

Their Pumpkin Croquette features chunks of Tofu mixed in with a Pumpkin Puree fried to generate a crispy outer shell. There's a toasted bread-like quality to the outside, with the interior being mild and not very sweet or salty. It's decent, but not something I find myself ordering again.

Shojin's Tomato & Tofu Carpaccio is something that will probably be rotated off the menu once Tomato season is over, but definitely order it while you can: Chef Ikeda takes slices of Red and Yellow Tomatoes and layers them with fresh Tofu, Shiso Leaves and Basil Balsamic Sauce.

The result is really stellar: While it may not replace my love of a great Burrata, the Tofu is surprisingly creamy and eating a piece with a Shiso Leaf and a slice of in-season, fresh Tomato with a drizzle of the Basil Balsamic Sauce makes for pure bliss, especially considering it's Vegan.

Their Yuzu Ponzu Seitan takes thin slices of Pan-Fried Seitan and tops it with Grated Daikon Radish and a Yuzu Citrus Soy Sauce. There's a good crispiness with the sear and there's a decent "meaty" quality to each bite. The Yuzu Citrus and Soy Sauce is tart and salty, but a bit too much without any Rice to pair with the dish.

The simply named Mushroom Spaghetti shows signs of promise, especially if you love mushrooms, taking Spaghetti, Sauteed Mushrooms with Garlic Scallion Sauce, Kaiware (Radish Sprouts), Shiso Leaves and Nori (Seaweed).

Ikeda-san uses a mix of Shiitake, Eringi (King Trumpet), and Button Mushrooms which really soak up the herbaly Garlic Scallion Sauce. It's not very salty, and another solid Vegan Pasta dish, but I prefer the Pesto Spaghetti with Kale over this one.

Shojin also features a nice selection of Organic Soba Noodle dishes. I order their most traditional flavor: Yamaimo Ume Soba (Buckwheat Noodles in a Chilled Soup topped with Mountain Potato, Shiso, Japanese Plum and Seaweed).

While I appreciate the crisp crunch of the thick cut Yamaimo (Japanese Mountain Potato), overall it's a bit too rustic in execution for my tastes: Usually the Yamaimo is finely grated, the Shiso Leaves are also finely chopped to help spread the wonderful flavors across the entire dish. You still get that by taking a nibble from the Shiso Leaf and then making sure you get a piece of the Yamaimo and then the Soba Noodles, but the flavors come across as a bit too disparate in that way compared to the traditional preparation (but they still work together overall). Their Tsuyu dipping sauce also feels a bit underwhelming.

And with the amazing hand-made Soba Noodles of Ichimian a bit to the south, it's hard to recommend this Soba unless you're in the area and feel like having some nice chilled Buckwheat Noodles. It's not bad, but Ichimian's version is just sublime.

On paper, Shojin's Orange Kale Salad may sound a bit strange or unappetizing (considering how stiff and fibrous raw Kale can be at times).

But after tasting it, the combination is brilliant: This is a *fun* Salad, using a very substantial green vegetable like raw Kale as the base, the Organic Kale used here is strong and leafy but still tender. The Sweet Balsamic dressing imparts a light tart quality that offsets the leafy, mineral bitterness of the Kale. The Farmer's Market Tomatoes and the Sweet Orange burst of citrus flavors really work as a great foil for something as strong as the Kale. It's different and standout for a salad.

Their Spicy Roll (Cucumber, Avocado and Shiso Roll with Spicy Miso Sauce) turns out to be another surprising offering in the Sushi sub-menu, but not quite as wonderful as their simpler Shiitake and Avocado Roll.

The good quality base helps with the success of this dish: Creamy Avocado, cool Cucumber and refreshing Shiso Leaf complement each other well and the Brown Rice and Shirogoma (White Sesame Seeds) are spot-on again. Their homemade Spicy Miso Sauce gives enough of a nice spicy kick without it being too overwhelming; it's more playful than anything. This is probably their second best Sushi offering after the Shiitake & Avocado Roll.

Continuing on with the spicy theme, we try their Spicy Tofu Soba (Buckwheat Noodles in Spicy Miso Soup, with Tofu, Ground Seitan "Meat" and Vegetables topped with Scallions).

Reading the description of this dish had me thinking it was Ikeda-san's interpretation of a Mabo Tofu Ramen dish, but with Soba Noodles instead. As such, I was imagining a thicker soup than what Shojin's version turned out to be, which was very soupy and watery. The little bits of "Ground Meat" made with Seitan turn out to be pretty decent in mimicking "Ground Pork/Beef." The Firm Tofu pieces taste fresh and match the Seitan and Noodles nicely. If Shojin made a thicker gravy (like a Mabo Tofu) and had a little more heat in the style of that dish as well, this would be a clear winner.

Their most expensive Sushi Roll turns out to be the least successful dish from their Vegan Sushi section: Dragon Roll (Shiitake Mushroom and Avocado Roll inside, BBQ Seitan and Avocado outside, with Sweet Soy Sauce).

Fundamentally the Dragon Roll starts with a good foundation - the Shiitake Mushroom & Avocado Roll - but falters on the fussy additions: The BBQ Seitan and Avocado on the outside, drenched with their Sweet Soy Sauce creates this messy, hard-to-eat piece of Sushi. The overly liberal use of the sauce also makes this one of the very few dishes (thankfully) at Shojin that's too salty and sauce heavy. But if you like fusion-style Sushi Rolls and saltier flavors, the Dragon Roll might be right up your alley.

One of our later visits commences with an Iced Darjeeling Mint Tea to act as the perfect defense against one of the hottest Summer days in So Cal. Made with their Organic Darjeeling Tea with Organic Mint Leaves (no sugar added), the slightly bitter, leafy, cool and very minty beverage feels like the most refreshing thing in the world and brings an immediate smile to my face. :)

We then begin with their Tofu Cheese Tartar (sic) (Tofu Cheese, Avocado, Tomato with Soy Balsamic Sauce).

The Tofu Cheese has a welcome and unexpected thick creamy quality, and when added to the Avocado, Tomato and Shiso base, it creates a verdant, fresh starter. Be careful not to use too much of the Hibiscus-infused Sea Salt: It sounds wonderful, but even a light dab with their Soy Balsamic makes the dish too salty.

But the next dish stole the evening for my guest and I: The plainly named Spicy Fried Tofu (Fried Marinated Tofu with Spicy Soy Sauce and Green Onions).

Imagine smartly crisped squares of Marinated Tofu, lightly kissed by fragrant Sesame Oil and Chili Peppers (giving a nice kick) finished with their Osawa Organic Nama Shoyu (Soy Sauce) and just the right amount of Negi (Green Onions) for that beautiful herbal finish. I could eat multiple plates of this Tofu and be satisfied if we ordered nothing else. Wonderful. (^_^)

We also try one of their Daily Specials: Oil-Free Ume Shiso Salad (Fresh Mizuna (a type of Japanese Vegetable), Mixed Greens, Cherry Tomatoes with Oil-Free Ume (Japanese Plum) Shiso Dressing).

Eating raw vegetables may be a turnoff at times (especially when faced with old Iceberg / Romaine Lettuce and over-refrigerated ingredients), but when tasting really fresh, bright greens, it's a completely different story. This is a stout, bold Salad, with the fibrous Mizuna and fresh Mixed Greens creating another hearty offering. The Oil-Free Dressing made out of Ume (Japanese Plum) and Shiso is wonderfully unique: Mouth-puckeringly tart from the Ume, and so Spring-like and herbal from the Shiso Leaf mixed into the Dressing, it's a lovely Salad.

The Spicy Kale Roll is another interesting dish: Kale outside, Cucumber, Shiso and Avocado Roll with Spicy Miso Sauce and Wasabi Mayonnaise.

The cooked Kale on the outside gives this Sushi a deep earthy flavor, while the Cucumber Shiso and Avocado form another good base. The Spicy Miso imparts a good savory quality, but the Wasabi Mayonnaise (Vegan) feels a little extraneous. A dab of real Wasabi helps bring this Kale Roll back to comfortable, familiar ground.

Their Avocado & Tomato Soba (Buckwheat Noodles in Chilled Soup topped with Mixed Greens, Avocado, Kaiware (Radish Sprouts), Tomatoes and Wasabi Mayonnaise) reminds me a bit of Ramen California and the new Vegetable-centric Japanese creations there.

While the Organic Soba Noodles are slightly overcooked, it's refreshing. At times it feels like "Salad mixed with Soba" but the greens taste really fresh (Farmer's Market), with a vibrancy and healthiness that comes through. When you get a perfect bite with some of the Tomato, Avocado and the lightly spicy and bitter Kaiware, it's brilliant, but there are many times when you only get parts of the dish because of the large, rustic cuts for each ingredient, leading to a slightly incomplete and uneven feeling.

We finish this meal with another new menu item: Seitan Cordon Blue (Deep Fried Crispy Seitan Cutlet stuffed with Vegan Cheese and Shiso, served with homemade Miso Demi-Glace Sauce and Special Dressing).

The Seitan Cutlet here is better than our first visit (last year), with a good meaty quality that's still a touch too dense at times, but is satisfying if you're in the mood for something more hefty than the vegetable dishes.

The Miso Demi-Glace Sauce tastes more like a good Marinara, with a fresh tangy yet sweet Tomato essence coming through. The Vegan Cheese stuffing is a decent substitute but feels a little "processed" for my tastes (even though it's made from natural ingredients). With a little more refinement in their homemade Seitan texture (lighter, less dense) and a better stuffing, this could really shine.

Their Crispy Avocado Roll (Tempura Avocado with Sweet Soy Sauce) is probably the second most disappointing item we've tried on the menu.

The premise sounds great: Tempura-fried Avocado wrapped by a bit of Organic Brown Rice with a Sweet Soy Sauce. But instead of the expected crispy Avocado Tempura at the center of this dish, we get an overly sauced, soggy Avocado Roll with the oily taste of Tempura, but without any of the wonderful crispiness. At that point, it's better to go simpler with the Shiitake and Avocado Roll and not worry about a soggy mess (and the flavors sing when it's not drowned by sauce).

Shojin's Miso Ginger Soba (Buckwheat Noodles in Hot Miso Ginger Soup with Assorted Vegetables topped with Scallions and Sesame Seeds) might be more accurately named "Miso Sesame Soba."

Unlike the Avocado and Tomato Soba, the vegetables in this dish are completely cooked through / stewed in the Miso Broth, with the Green Beans, Bean Sprouts, Carrots, Shiitake Mushrooms, Napa Cabbage blending well together. The Broth itself, however, has almost no perceptible traces of Ginger. Instead of a good root spiciness (from Ginger), the Miso and Sesame Oil aromas dominate the dish. It's not bad at all, but a bit disappointing when you're expecting something Gingery and getting something else entirely.

The Vegan Dessert Menu is something else worth noting, with Chef Ikeda compiling a good variety of desserts to match any mood. One of the newer Summer items is a Burnt Caramel Chocolate Tart (Dark Chocolate Ganache in a Chocolate Cookie Crust, Thin Layer of Burnt Caramel on the bottom, with Vanilla Ice Cream).

I'm not much of a Chocolate fan, but this Vegan Chocolate Tart is pretty impressive: A deep, cocoa and chocolate outpouring of flavor with each bite, with the Tart's center tasting like a thick, lip-smacking, intense Chocolate Fudge. The Vegan Vanilla Ice Cream is pretty impressive as well, having a great Vanilla Bean taste and generally still tasting like real Ice Cream.

But it's the Vegan Sesame Ice Cream that is mind-blowing: Chef Ikeda serves a Rice-based, non-dairy, lactose-free and gluten-free dessert, and despite all those limitations, the Sesame Ice Cream is simply *wonderful*. Extremely redolent, smelling of beautiful freshly-toasted Sesame Seeds, the taste exceeds the aroma, with an intense nutty flavor and good sweetness that fades quickly as you swallow (so it never becomes cloying). As much as I love Scoops, this is a pretty impressive, healthy alternative. :)

Shojin's primary weakness is their service. Over the course of our 7 visits, the service has just been consistently slow and forgetful at times. The slowness comes from the cost-cutting measures, on some days, having only 1 waitress covering the entire restaurant (with no busboy), naturally resulting in high odds that getting anything (taking orders, drinks, etc.) will take longer than normal. On other visits, there might be a busboy/2nd server, and even then it's still tough on them covering the entire restaurant (and the service is still quite slow at times). On one visit, however, a busboy was completely forgetful of any request presented to them (needing a plate (we were missing one for the table); a refill for hot tea and water; and other 2 other basic requests). But through those hiccups each of our servers came across as well-meaning and really amiable.

Prices range from $3.95 - $7.50 for Appetizers; $5.25 - $13.95 for Sushi and Entrees; and $4.95 - $7.95 for Desserts. We averaged about ~$21 per person (including tax and tip) for each of our 7 visits.

Shojin represents a relaxing place to find surprisingly tasty and healthy Vegan Japanese cuisine. While there are some items that clearly taste like a shadow of the real meat version of a dish, Chef Kimiko Ikeda has grown this Macrobiotic Vegan menu by leaps and bounds over the last 1.5 years, with the current menu offering some true standouts like their Shishito Peppers with Garlic and Organic Soy Sauce, and their Spicy Fried Tofu, and their simple but excellent Shiitake Mushroom & Avocado Brown Rice Sushi, all of which I would gladly order in any restaurant (Vegetarian or not). Going forward, it would be great to see Chef Ikeda add more dishes that celebrate the *Vegetable* in a variety of ways (instead of focusing on the mock meats). Shojin has room for improvement, but even with its foibles it represents a tranquil culinary oasis, where you can take a break from all the intense eating around town and just... relax. :)

(Note: The majority of their dishes are served during Dinner only, with a limited Lunch menu.)

Rating: 7.5 (out of 10.0)

(inside Little Tokyo Shopping Center)
333 South Alameda Street, Unit 310
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tel: (213) 617-0305

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 12:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner ] 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Noah said...

Great job, as always. I totally understand the desire to take a break from heavier, meatier fare. What's the average life expectancy of a food blogger?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks. :) And LOL, yes, I suppose it depends on what types of food that person is covering most often. :)

weezermonkey said...

I live so close to Shojin, but I've still never been! I think the carnivore in me just shies away, but your very complete review may have just changed my mind.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Believe me, I'm a carnivore as well. :) If you're in the mood to try something lighter like Shojin, just keep in mind it's nothing as sultry and sexy as, say, Animal, but for lighter fare (that's Vegan), there are some good dishes (and some misses).

Let me know if you end up going. :)

lynn said...

i tried going to shojin once but they were closed. i should give em another try....

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Actors Diet,

Ah sorry to hear they were closed when you got there. If you get a chance to try them, let me know what you think of it. :)

H. C. said...

Shojin is definitely one of my favorite places for lighter eats that's flavorful and creative, it's just a pity that everytime I bring it up with my foodie friends and they hear "vegan" they shy away as if the restaurant carries a plague. Would be great to be able to bring a bigger group and try several items at once! And I'm sure they'd appreciate the business too, given how hidden they're tucked away on the third floor of that mall, and competing with the more popular Honda Ya and the longstanding Hana-ichimonme nearby.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

I'm glad to hear you really enjoy Shojin as well. :) If you get a chance, next time, definitely try out all their new Small Plates (Appetizers) and newer Entrees they've added.

I can't wait to see what Chef Ikeda does for the changing of the seasons. Also, do you like Real Food Daily and M Cafe more, or Shojin? Just curious. Thanks.

Food, she thought. said...

I am always so in awe of your thoughtful and thorough reviews. Close to my house, check. Japanese, check. Healthy, check. I am going to get over there sometime this week after my long carnivorous weekend.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Thanks, but you really give me too much credit. (^_^;; I just hope you enjoy your visit to Shojin. It's not anything earth-shattering, but there's been some nice, enjoyable, healthy dishes that are satisfying.

Let me know how your visit goes. :)

glutster said...

I've been wanting to come here since they first opened!

am definitely going to go after I come back....detox please!

fried anything is a staple preparation in every meal I have here!

not complaining though :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Nice. :) I hope you get back safely from your trip and let me know what you think of Shojin. :)

gourmetpigs said...

I've heard about Shojin but this is fancier vegan than I had expected! I was about to give up on Seitan reading your review until I got to the pepper steak part

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

The dishes definitely look fancier now (new menu), but the restaurant itself isn't stuffy or anything. :) It's actually quite cute / simple.

Let me know how your meal went if you go. :)

H. C. said...

RE: Shojin v. M Cafe or Real Food -- hard to compare since their stylings are very different, Shojin's vegan fare is more traditional japanese (even if they take modern liberties) whereas M Cafe and Real Food seem to cater to a more Western palate.

But yeah, both M Cafe and Real Food Daily seem to be "safer" to bring non-vegans, the former because they actually serve seafood so there's that cop-out, and the latter has a lot of vegan improvisations for meat (tempeh bacon, for example) and cheese (made from nuts) that tastes eerily like the real thing, making both a great option if I feel like taking a land meat & cheese break but want something a bit more substantial than pureed soup & salad.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Thanks a bunch for your thoughts on M Cafe and RFD. Can't wait to try them soon. :)

gogovegan said...

hi, Exile Kiss

this is Shojin Restaurant!
we would like to announce some upcoming event!

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.

hope to see you there!

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