Z: Located on the third floor of the Little Tokyo Square Mall, Shojin stands unassuming, surrounded by traditional Japanese restaurants. With its name lettered in pale gray and subtly placed in the lower corner of the window, Shojin is not easy to find but definitely worth the hunt.
R: Once inside we were graciously welcomed and seated in comfortable, high-back chairs opposite our friends Annie and Eric, who sat on an upholstered banquette. The warm ambience is airy and comfortable yet understated upscale and surrounds diners with soft earth tones from the wall colors to the linens.
Z: While we knew we were going to dine in a vegan restaurant, we noticed it wasn't obvious until we opened the menu. Clearly stated are the words "all plant-based ingredients." On the bottom of each menu page are the words, "We are not just vegan, organic & natural vegan." The focus, just as the name implies, is to bring organic and natural foods to the table emulating a Buddhist Shojin tradition that dates back to the 13th century.
R: We were tempted to start with the Detox Elixer made from cane juice, cayenne pepper, ginger juice, and iced water, but decided to drink water to keep our palates clean for the tasting ahead. Though the appetizer section had several temptations, we chose three to share with our friends: Kinpira Gobo, Organic Tomato Tartar, and Japanese Style Kale Salad "shira-ae."
Z: First to grace our table was a stunning presentation of the Organic Tomato Tartar shaped like a tall, rounded dome layered with the freshest looking chopped tomatoes, diced avocado, and diced tofu cheese. Topped with finely shredded shiso leaves, the raw appetizer was centered on a large white platter decorated with sprays of dark balsamic sauce alternating with drizzles of pale green kale sauce.
R: Organic tomatoes definitely have a sweeter flavor than those conventionally grown and these were as tasty as they looked. Exceptionally flavorful were the bits of tofu cheese. When we asked how it was made, Chef Tsuguhiro covered his mouth, looked down slightly, and said with a smile, "It's a secret!"
Z: Crushed sunflower seeds and mashed tofu were integral companions in the lightly steamed kale that composed the Japanese Style Kale Salad. A traditional Japanese dish, the steamed kale was well seasoned and enthusiastically greeted at our table. Kale is one of the most nutritious vegetables, yet seldom appears on restaurant menus.
R: Our third appetizer, the Kinpira Gobo, was a tender, succulent, and lightly spiced combination of long shreds of burdock root and carrots dressed in soy sauce and mirin, and laced with chiles.
Z: We could have chosen the Kabocha Pumpkin Chowder, or the daily special soup, or one of the salads like the Greek Salad Shojin Style or Grilled Mixed Mushroom Salad, but instead we were ready for heartier fare and chose three of the entrées to share.
R: Shojin Original Okara Cake makes a stunning appearance served on a long, narrow, rectangular dish with risotto style brown rice placed in a row down the center. Perched on top of the rice were four halves of the plump, deep fried okara cakes garnished with a dollop of lemony veggie mayonnaise.
Z: Three cheers for okara cakes! They were an instant success at our table. Crisp and golden brown on the outside and tender and light on the inside, these are made from the discarded portion of the soybeans in the process of making soymilk. Many years ago, thrifty Asian chefs discovered how nutritious okara was and incorporated it into creative dishes like this one.
R: Completing this entrée was a serving of steamed broccolini and a tiny oval bowl of lemony salsa for dipping the okara cakes. From Zel's enthusiastic comments, you've probably guessed this dish was a definitive thumbs up.
Z: Another culinary sensation was the Seitan Katsu Curry. Chef Tsuguhiro explained that after trying many varieties of commercially prepared seitan, he was unsatisfied and decided to develop his own. After much experimenting, he achieved an outstanding "wheat meat" with exceptionally tender texture. Brown rice forms the base of this dish, while slices of seitan cutlets rest on top. Dominating the plate is a giant pool of chestnut brown Japanese style curry for dipping the seitan. Garnishing the plate are thin slices of marinated daikon radish. This is a delicious, innovative, and well-conceived entrée!
R: While many of Shojin's dishes have a distinctive contemporary flair, tradition prevails with two Bento Box entrées. We chose the Shojin Style Bento Box to experience four items that are very typical dishes served in Japanese cuisine. The box itself made an appealing presentation. Once opened, it revealed four separate bowls. One held the tasty shredded burdock, carrot, and dried daikon we tasted in one of the appetizers. Another featured hijiki salad with shredded carrots. The third bowl was filled with steamed chunks of gobo root and kabocha squash. The fourth, our favorite, was another typical Japanese dish made from okara, konnyaku, carrots, and edamame and seasoned with soy sauce and mirin. Each of the dishes in this Bento Box was offered individually on the appetizer menu.
Z: The three appetizers, shared among the four of us, were perfect as meal starters as were the three entrees. That left us ready to venture into dessertland. The Green Tea "Moss" Cake with Sweet Azuki Beans was a unanimous decision and is most unique, even for Japanese cuisine. Chef Tsuguhiro's original creation makes an awesome appearance looking like something prepared by Japanese forest nymphs. The triangular-shaped serving, floating in a sea of green tea sauce, greets the eye with its uniquely marbleized, moss green coloring and stands three inches tall. Clearly visible is the thick layer of sweet azuki bean filling. For sweeteners, the chef has chosen organic maple syrup, brown rice syrup, or fruit juice in all of the desserts.
R: What I found most enjoyable about the "Moss" Cake was its light and airy texture. Delicately sweet, it tasted like green tea that went to dessert school and came out gorgeous, almost fluffy, and earthy green in squiggly patterns. It was the perfect choice with the attractive single-serving pots of Matcha Genmaicha tea we sipped between bites.
Z: Clearly, Chef Tsuguhiro takes pride in his work and has developed a vegan menu that stands apart from any of Little Tokyo's restaurant offerings. The gracious staff of Ken, Lisa, and part-owner Mitsu makes patrons feel welcome and spoils them endlessly with TLC.
R: Shojin Organic and Natural is the perfect blend of modern and traditional. The décor and world house music definitely reflect contemporary modes, while the special menu infuses both modern and conventional Japanese influence.
Z: A cut above, Shojin is a charming lunch and dinner spot where soft lighting, table linens, and excellent service go hand in hand with fine cuisine. Expect to pay a little extra for the exceptional experience.
333 South Alameda St., 3rd floor, Little Tokyo Square Mall
Reviewed April 2008