I have professed my love for beer and cheese numerous times in this column, and always look forward to the next kushiage (deep-fried kebabs) or pizza outing. I admit, I’m not always the healthiest of vegetarians.
For this month, however, I’ve decided to at least make an effort to regain some nutritional balance. I couldn’t have asked for a better starting block than Piman, a juice bar near Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
Piman is more than a juice bar, it is also a restaurant that serves curries, pasta, pilaf and more. While not completely vegetarian, most of the dishes just “turn out that way” the server pointed out to me.
Piman has been around for a whopping 36 years, which surprised me given the come-and-go nature of many nonmainstream restaurants in this city (in fact I only found Piman after a failed attempt to visit a vegetarian restaurant that had closed six months ago). This lone juice cafe off a quiet alleyway facing the park has ridden the trends for more than three decades, and the quality speaks to this.
Piman feels different from most of the health-conscious cafes popping up recently. There’s a tried and tested, worn-in vibe here that’s exceptionally comfortable. A stoic confidence is in the air — staff dress in black and wear a polite but somewhat indifferent expression as they volley orders, but it doesn’t dampen the charm. A mound of apples serves as functional art to an otherwise low-lit, home-style cafe, and colorful, informative menus invite the customer to engage happily in selecting a juice or dish. Page after page of laminated information tells you which juice mix is good for what ailment — and reminds you that there are no added sugars besides natural lemon and apple juice. (Information is all in Japanese but they have a simplified English menu on request.)
Customers can sit at the counter or at peripheral tables and sip a glass of juice — there are almost 50 types, starting at ¥700 a glass. I ordered the beetroot and soy milk combo as it seemed most outside my comfort zone. One zingy, pink glass later, I was glad I did — beets have never tasted so sweet.
Diving into the food menu, I chose a spicy mushroom pilaf after the server kindly informed me which dishes were vegetarian (down to the type of bouillon used). Before the dish came out I could hear the oil crackling and sizzling in the kitchen, and smell the garlic and spices as they lightly wafted over. When my dish arrived, it was love at first sight. Here was a plate that was decently large, piled with pilaf and generous mounds of shredded carrots, alfalfa and salad.
As I enjoyed the last bites, I was playfully greeted with these words written on the bottom of the plate: “There are lots of different kinds of vegetables.” Yes, there are. And you, Piman, know what you’re doing with them.
Yes, the dishes just “turn out” this way, with no strange substitutions and no skimping on the savory factor — in my case a densely flavored pilaf cooked to steaming perfection.
At Piman, they understand the art of cooking for both flavor and nutrition mainly using vegetables as a base. The details on what you’re eating are there if you need them, in a way that’s thorough but not didactic. Just information if you want it, and a heaping plate of food. If even a few of the more recent, trendy organic places would follow Piman’s lead, I would be one happy eater. This is how vegetarian dining ought to be.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5