It’s time to get healthy


NOTE: J’s Kitchen is no longer in business. 

The mirror does not lie, and nor do the bathroom scales. All that rich, stick-to-the-ribs winter food has inevitably stuck to the waistline too, leaving us sluggish and out of balance. So now, with the ume (plum) in bloom and spring nigh, it seems like the right moment to take stock, lighten up the diet and shed a few kilos. Time to get back in balance.

Easier said than done, of course. It’s hard enough to keep a simple, healthy diet together at home; when we’re busy running around town it’s far more of a challenge.

Tokyo has a number of unassuming restaurants offering reliable shizen shoku (natural food) cooking, but few are in central locations and fewer still have the kind of atmosphere that we enjoy eating in. So when we happened upon J’s Kitchen, it felt like a double blessing.

Not only does this new (opened late 2005) deli-restaurant have a great location, just steps from the Hiroo crossing, it boasts a bright, cheerful look that entices you to come in. The appetizing photos of salads and pastas that adorn the entrance send all the right messages. This is a place where eating healthily does not have to be a penance or a chore.

Owner Kumiko Ueki adheres to the macrobiotic principles of whole grains, organic produce, natural seasonings and absolutely no artificial additives. But J’s Kitchen is inspired by the laid-back Southern Californian version of the philosophy, rather than the original Japanese creed with its worthy but oh-so-austere obsession with brown rice, hijiki and miso soup.

Ueki’s other inspiration is her son Jerome — he’s the handsome, cheerful child whose portrait adorns the walls. Her aim is to provide customers with the same sort of safe, chemical-free food that she has raised him on. Hence the name, J’s Kitchen.

And hence the child-friendly foods in the deli case on the ground floor of J’s Kitchen. Freshly cooked vegetables, fruit juices, sandwiches, cookies and a range of desserts: Everything is vegan — meaning no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products are used — and made without refined sugar or flour.

The casual, cafe-style restaurant upstairs offers more of the same. The set lunches include a substantial (though not very spicy) vegetable curry, served with brown rice of course. In the evening, the menu is entirely a la carte, and features more exotic vegetarian items such as Korean-style namul and Mexican fajitas (cheese-free, though).

Instead of meat, J’s Kitchen makes full use of tofu, both fresh, dried (kohya-dofu) and fried (atsu-age); protein-rich tempeh, a soyfood traditional to Indonesia; and seitan, a dark, chewy, savory “vege-meat” prepared from wheat gluten that has long been used in Japanese temple cuisine and which is now a macrobiotic staple.

Our harumaki spring rolls contained lettuce and strips of deep-fried tempe with a very satisfying texture, served with a light dip of rice vinegar. The seitan shows up as a meat analogue with sweet and sour vegetables. But we were surprised to find that the wholewheat buns of our vegetable burger were filled with nothing more than thick chunks of cooked cabbage and bell pepper, richly marinated in olive oil and seasoned with a hint of wholegrain mustard.

Obviously, this is a far cry from the Golden Arches, and a considerable mental adjustment is called for. But neither is this hair-shirt territory: J’s Kitchen serves two kinds of beer (including the heavenly St. Peter’s Ale), as well as sake and wine, all organic, naturally. And the desserts, sweetened with rice malt, are remarkably good.

In both concept and execution, J’s Kitchen would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though prices are set at Tokyo levels. But there are many people, not only in the Hiroo area, who are prepared to pay that premium for the security of knowing this is food they can trust, for themselves and their children.

Macrobiotics is a wide church. It’s all about balance, not dogma — at least at the liberal end of the spectrum. Animal protein is not necessarily taboo, especially from seafood, and alcohol and coffee are tolerated for special occasions. This, at any rate, is the interpretation at Chaya Macrobi, a move intended to make it as accessible as possible to the mainstream clientele who patronize Isetan department store.

The menu is extensive (if expensive), and the cooking is of a very capable restaurant standard. We especially like the tempura of early spring tara-no-me (a wild mountain vegetable) and shin-gobo (young burdock), drizzled with a miso sauce. And the wholewheat couscous served with a substantial stew of chickpeas, vegetables and seitan is most satisfying.

Unfortunately, the large dining room is poorly lit and feels claustrophobic, and the wait staff are overly formal. So we prefer to sit at the counter in the antechamber, where you can contemplate the wine and cider bottles that line the bar and where the jazz Muzak is tempered by the sound of the espresso machine.

Chaya Macrobi, Isetan 7F, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3357-0014; www.chayam.jp/ Open daily: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (last order 9:15 p.m.). Closest station: Shinjuku-Sanchome (Marunouchi and Shinjuku lines).

Chaya Macrobi is an offshoot of the renowned French restaurant, La Maree de Chaya, down on the coast at Hayama in Kanagawa Prefecture, and now has a number of shops and stores selling its superb maple-sugar-based patisseries. We particularly like the branch in Kamakura, housed in a sleek, new wooden building behind the Kinokuniya store.

Demonstrating that macrobiotics dovetails perfectly with the Omotesando lifestyle, Brown Rice Cafe serves up meat-free, sugar-free snacks and simple meals in a compact, contemporary setting. The look is as chic and stylish as the customer base. But the feel is friendly, and when the weather is warm enough, we enjoy sitting out on the wooden deck at the back sipping on the thick multigrain potage soup. The boutique at the front sells Neal’s Yard natural remedies. There is also a cooking school attached.

Brown Rice Cafe, Green Bldg, 1 F, 5-1-17 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5778-5416; www.brown.co.jp/about/cafe.html. Open 12-8 p.m. (last order). Closest station: Omotesando (Ginza, Hanzomon and Chiyoda lines).

Although Michio Kushi is the acknowledged leader of the macrobiotic movement in America, it was only recently that his interpretation found acceptance back here in his homeland. The Kushi Garden Deli & Cafe offers plenty of salads, baked goods and wholesome light meals, in an unprepossessing room on the first floor of the Mainichi Shimbun’s headquarters, The food is tasty, though, and the room is entirely no-smoking.

Kushi Garden Deli & Cafe, Palace Side Building, 1-1-1 Hitotsubashi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3215-9455; www.kushi-garden.com. Nearest station: Takebashi (Tozai Line). Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (last order; Saturday 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday.

Nezu no Ya is a funky, friendly natural foods store that’s one of our favorites in the city, not least because they have a wood-clad little diner out back, serving up wholesome set lunches with a gamelan soundtrack. The choice is either brown rice, assorted side dishes and hearty miso soup (1,100 yen); fortifying lentil and vegetable curry (900 yen); or a variety of herbal beverages. It’s all strictly vegan of course — including the Yebisu and Chimay beers.

Nezu no Ya, 1-1-14 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku; tel: (03) 3823-0030. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday & holidays.