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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

R: Have you ever yearned for that perfect vegan dining spot where the ambiance whispered intimacy, and you felt instantly swept into a warm, serene, and pampered place? While many of our excellent Los Angeles vegan restaurants offer delicious food and great service, few possess that exceptional combination of innovative food, striking presentations, and outstanding service, all wrapped into an atmosphere that is romantically alluring, enticingly charming, and comfortably peaceful.

Shojin Organic & Natural Z: Eureka! Shojin Culver City has created that dining haven and we've experienced it! Shojin's Little Tokyo location set the bar very high, but their Culver City restaurant pushed the bar to an even higher level when it opened March 8, 2013.

R: Shojin is a trend-setter and the first Los Angeles vegan restaurant to create the backdrop of mystique surrounding its secret, underground Culver City hideaway. If this evokes your curiosity, then here's your clue to finding this cozy oasis.

Z: You won't have to drive past the restaurant four times like we did or feel insecure that you've written down the wrong address. The address is correct. Here's the first clue: there is no sign on the building to identify the restaurant--only a blank, black bar on the building above the door. The second clue is to look for the golden slice of lotus root painted on the wall to the right of the door. Above the lotus slice is the address 12406.

R: Having made our reservation for three, we were cordially welcomed at the door and escorted to our table outfitted with tasteful linens and multiple glass candle cups. Our friend Chuck was first to comment on the romantic and fashionably low lighting. The candle lights at each table were complemented by a few drop lights outfitted with antique Edison bulbs, the ones used in dimly lit, elegant, formal parlors nearly a century ago.

Shojin Organic & Natural
Z: Our host, David, slid a basket out from under my chair. This was a convenient place for my purse he said and then slid the basket under the chair and out of the way. The basket may seem like a small detail, but created such a convenience. Contributing to the charming ambience is the original artwork by Sara Williams, who designed each of the unique wall pieces.

R: The four personable women servers were dressed in black and were knowledgeable about each menu item. We scanned the beverage menu and noticed it covered all one could desire: teas, soft drinks, sparkling water, sake varieties, wines, and beers. Chuck noticed the Natural Ginger Ale. It had instant appeal to all of us and was pleasant to sip while making our menu choices.

Shojin Organic & Natural Z: Keina, one of the attentive servers, suggested we try some of the special dishes that were created especially for this location. We decided it would be fun to share each of the items and ordered three of the new sushi rolls--Osaka Ablaze, Sky Tree, and Green Forest. For our starters we chose Gobo Tempura and Fried Tofu Soup, the special soup of the day. While it was tempting to choose another sushi roll, we thought it a good idea to include one of the entrées and agreed on Seitan Steak with Garlic Herb Butter.

R: But before any of those dishes arrived, we were each served a beautiful blue and white oval dish artfully plated with three tiny and uniquely different tidbits. On the left was a mini bowl with thinly sliced cucumber and tiny yellow bell pepper slices with miso butter on the side. The center held three bite size chunks of deliciously caramelized sweet potato. On the right was a half mini red pepper topped with avocado relish. This thoughtfully planned, small platter represented the gamut of flavors and textures to spark the senses and whet our appetites for the meal ahead.

Shojin Organic & Natural Z: We noted the restaurant is intentionally small to embrace the feeling of intimacy, yet it didn't feel crowded. The soft and tasteful instrumental jazz playing in the background warmed the room, yet didn't dampen our ability to enjoy conversation easily. Though there were many other diners present, the room retained its comfortable buzz of activity without becoming noisy.

R: The enclosed kitchen was directly behind us, yet we never heard the clatter of dishes or the typical sounds of chopping or sizzling frying pans. We knew the kitchen was a bustling niche because of the many dishes servers were delivering, but we never heard a sound. It was as if a team of sorcerers were conjuring the beautiful foods with only the wave of a wand.

Z: And what sorcery they conjured! Our appetizer of Gobo Tempura arrived along with clean white rectangular plates. Elegantly presented on a square platter, fingers of fresh burdock were dipped into a batter and crisply fried, then topped with a well-seasoned yuzu pepper mayonnaise. Underneath was a bed of baby spinach. Raw gobo, or burdock, is rather tough to chew, but prepared as tempura it was heavenly and melted in the mouth.

Shojin Organic & Natural R: The Fried Tofu Soup was another textural experience. The light camel-colored broth deposited the distinctive flavor of a tasty mushroom base and was served with three squares of soft tofu floating in the center. Though the tofu didn't have the appearance of typical fried tofu, it did have a coating that had us all puzzled about identifying its origin, The chef was kind enough to share his secret.

Z: It was so delightful I might even try this at home. The chef dips the tofu into arrowroot, and then, fries it. Gently placed into the broth, the tofu delivers two distinct textures--pleasingly soft inside and creamy satin-smooth and silky outside. I felt as if I were eating clouds.

R: New dishes replaced the soiled ones as our amazing Green Forest sushi rolls were placed on the table. The presentation was stunning and looked like a ring of ceremonial dancers encircling a small dark pool. The composition consisted of avocado wrapped around freshly prepared asparagus, carrot, and brown rice thinly drizzled with yuzu mayo. Sitting atop the sushi rolls were small, tempura-fried broccoli florets. The "dancers' pool" was a ginger soy dipping sauce.

Z: Sky Tree is an experience no one should miss, if only for its superb presentation. Eryngii are the favored mushrooms that appear in many of Shojin's dishes, and for good reason. This mushroom shows panache and macho with its wonderful taste and delightful texture. The center of each sushi roll was filled with eryngii mushrooms and cucumber and wrapped with brown rice. The rolls were uniquely stacked and surrounded with a mix of grilled zucchini fingers and red and green bell pepper strips. Topping the presentation were artfully placed crisp lotus root chips.

R: The showstopper was the irresistible garlic miso soy sauce our server slowly poured over the Sky Tree. The generous quantity of sauce slowly cascaded down the stack and gradually pooled at the base, making the perfect dipping sauce. What an inventive dish!

Z: The feast continued as each dish arrived separately with clean dishes replacing the soiled ones. We appreciated the gentle pacing that gave each dish the opportunity to be fully experienced and savored. Everything was served with an elegant grace, yet not pretentious. Our last sushi roll was Osaka Ablaze, another eryngii composition paired with scallions and wrapped in brown rice. The rolls were then topped with sautéed Brussels sprouts

Shojin Organic & Natural R: Two unique features of this dish were the yamaimo and ginger sauce topping the entire cluster of rolls. Yamaimo, we discovered, is a Japanese yam that can be eaten raw as well as cooked. Using yamaimo innovatively, the chef grated it and mixed it with ginger to create a unique, mildly savory flavor. In contrast with other sushi rolls, this one was served on a hot black stone.

Z: Completing our dinner selections was the Seitan Steak consisting of fork-tender slabs of housemade seitan topped with a spoonful of irresistible garlic herb butter. Accompanying the steak was a small serving of brown rice. Typical of Japanese plate design, a whole roasted carrot and a perfectly grilled stalk of asparagus were tastefully overlapped over a small roasted potato.

R: The seitan steak was melt-in-the-mouth buttery soft and delivered a rich and satisfying savory flavor. Though each of our dishes made excellent choices for a hearty dinner, they were only a smattering of the grand array of menu offerings that included soups and salads as well. Now it was time for serious decisions--what to choose for dessert. There were many enticing choices including Strawberry Cake, Lemon Lime Cheesecake, Molten Lava Cake, Sesame Flan, and Espresso Chocolate Cake.

Z: We held a very brief conference and settled on the Espresso Chocolate Cake and Sesame Flan with Maple Syrup, a dessert offered only at this location. While waiting for our desserts, we received a surprise fruit plate presented in grand Shojin style. Some fruit slices were colorfully stacked while others were attractively clustered in the center. Tangerine, kiwi, cherimoya, oranges, and strawberries were the stars of the fruit display garnished with a fresh edible flower and a mint leaf. The fruit was served along with a small glass cup of refreshing peppermint tea.

Shojin Organic & Natural
R: The Sesame Flan with Maple Syrup was a masterful concoction and superior to any flan we've ever tasted. It stood apart simply because of its exceptional texture, though its flavor was deliciously compelling, too. Rather than using the familiar base of silken tofu, the chef combined kudzu (a starchy root), with soymilk, sesame seeds, and tahini, then chilled it in a mold. Maple syrup was poured over the top and the flan was accompanied with slices of fresh fruit and dark brown, very thin wafers of sesame seeds, dates, and almonds. We savored their crunchy texture and loved their just-right sweetness--a perfect dessert combo.

Z: Our chocolaty square of Espresso Chocolate Cake was another tantalizing treat with a texture that made us wonder if there might be ground nuts involved. Our hunch was right. Cacao powder is blended with coffee, soymilk, cashews and maple syrup, resulting in a divinely rich and very delectable dessert to complete our meal. This dessert choice is served with a scoop of exceptional rice milk ice cream garnished with tidbits of fruit and a single mint leaf.

R: Shojin Culver City is a hidden treasure. Vegans love to spread the word when they make a great find, and this is an exceptional restaurant perfect for any date night and even better for those extra special times. As a matter of fact, Shojin wants to keep this venue special by limiting parties to no more than four people and requesting "upscale casual attire." It's that special.

Z: Everything is created in the kitchen from scratch, so you won't find chemicals or artificial coloring on your plate. And if you have allergies, the chef will do his best to keep you healthy and safe. Menu items are organic when possible, and the Fuji water purification system is used throughout the restaurant. Most of the dishes are gluten-free with the exception of a few made from seitan. To maintain the serenity the restaurant asks that diners not use cell phones in the dining room.

R: I'm always surprised when a small restaurant is able to offer a menu of such depth and diversity. There are nine appetizers that range from $8 to $10. Soups are $7 to $8. Salads are $12. The sushi roll choices number fourteen and range in price from $14 to $15. Entrees are $19.

Z: Shojin Culver City will definitely capture your taste buds and just might make you fall in love. We will always hold Shojin very dear. They have mastered the art of hospitality and know how to make their guests feel welcome and highly valued.

Shojin Organic & Natural Culver City
12406 Washington Ave., Culver City, CA 90066
Phone: 310-390-0033
Hours: Tuesday through Friday 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 12:00 Noon to 10:00 p.m.
Monday Closed
Website: http://www.theshojin.com

Shojin Organic and Natural Los Angeles
333 South Alameda St., Suite 310, Los Angeles, CA 90013
Phone: 230-617-0305

Reviewed May 2013

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