Despite the hallowed status of vegetables in traditional Buddhist cuisine and the healthy reputation of the Japanese diet, let’s face it: The majority of restaurants in postwar Japan are about pleasing carnivores, and most often the main-course options are limited to animal proteins. In recent years, though, vegetable-centric cuisine — not to be confused with strictly vegetarian fare — has been gaining popularity, with the number of restaurants focused on fresh produce growing steadily.
Don’t expect the waiters to be wearing Birkenstock sandals at these new style veggie restaurants, and the soup stock won’t necessarily be fish-free. The vegetables and their provenance do, however, take center-stage. This is literally the case at Nouka no Daidokoro (Farmer’s Kitchen), which just recently opened its fourth restaurant in Tokyo. At the Ebisu location, patrons enter through a fully stocked produce locker (which doubles as a veggie store), and a vegetable hothouse and veggie buffet are the restaurant’s centerpieces. On the walls, large posters sing the praises of the star farmers of Japan and at the register, the shelves are filled with condiments and snacks made from local goodness.
Yasaiya Mei, now with six locations, is slightly more up-scale but places the same emphasis on domestically grown vegetables. Quiz the staff on a particular vegetable, and there’s a good chance that they’ll not only impress you with their in-depth knowledge, but that they’ve actually been to the farm where it was grown.
Late last month, a new face arrived on the yasai scene: Vegetable Sushi Potager, which features nigiri-zushi topped with ingredients such as shitake, carrots, radishes and cauliflower. Aya Kakisawa, the chef and owner of Vegetable Sushi Potager, has searched not only domestically but also globally for ingredients that would work well on a bed of sticky rice.
Kakisawa also owns the extremely popular Pattiserie Potager in Nakameguro, which sells “vegetable sweets” such as carrot and chocolate flans; edamame cheese cakes; and purple sweet potato Valentine’s chocolates. She’s obviously on to a good thing. We chanced by Pattiserie Potager on a Sunday last month and the queues were out the door.
Despite the good times, industry website Tokyo Food News Online has sounded a note of caution to budding restauranteurs: There are plenty of vegetable cuisine restaurants that have gone under over the past few years, so it’s important to get the formula right. The Japanese are extremely partial to a nice bit of meat, so drawing the focus away from carnivorous delights has to be done well.
One shop that has been thriving is the Chofu-based Misatoya. The shop also doubles as a grocer selling organic vegetables to a loyal clientele. It’s this model that Tokyo Food News think might be the key to success, just as fishmonger’s have successfully started up izakaya (drinking establishements) on the premises in recent years, grocers might think to expand their business by setting up a restaurant in store.
Would a delicious slice of pumpkin satisfy as the main attraction to your meal or do you think nothing can replace a good steak? Are you up for trying out vegetable sushi or sweets?
(Nouka no Daidokoro photos by Mio Yamada)