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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

R: Hip, hot, and stealth macrobiotic are the first three thoughts that rolled off my tongue after finishing an exceptional meal at M Café de Chaya. This very cool, informal eatery is the sleek new baby of the same family that owns and operates the two Chaya Restaurants in the Los Angeles area and one in San Francisco.

M Cafe de Chaya Z: Stealth macrobiotic is right. Only once does the word appear on the back of the take-out menu. No mention of this ancient style of food preparation appears on the expansive menu posted on the wall behind the long deli counter. While the foods reflect typical macrobiotic principles, they're attractively dressed in casual chic with fresh accoutrements that appeal to the enthusiastic yuppy crowd.

R: Located on busy Melrose Avenue, one block West of La Brea, the restaurant announces its presence not with a giant glaring neon sign, but, instead, with bright yellow awnings and the large letter "M," expressing Japanese design where simplicity makes a strong statement. In this case, the "M" is for macrobiotic, but it's rather a quiet concept the owners de-emphasize. While most of their offerings are totally vegan, a limited number of items contain fish or seafood. Three Salads

Z: Well established in the restaurant business in Japan for 400 years, Yuta Tsunoda's family prepared him well for the task of managing this lively café that's attracting a flurry of young diners too hip for the likes of McDonalds. There were patrons devouring their stunning veggie dishes along the sidewalk, more engaged in lively chatter while eating at wooden tables inside the restaurant, and others hovering at the deli counter making their selections.

R: Food is where the "M" concept has the opportunity to show off its brilliant colors with many dishes attractively displayed in the three-tier deli case that spans the length of the long, narrow dining area. The striking Garden Roll and Shiitake-Avocado Roll Sushi posed beside the appealing Inari Sushi, little tofu pouches stuffed with seasoned brown rice and garnished with toppings like roasted eggplant or sliced shiitake mushrooms.

Z: We brought a friend along and did justice to three of the four hot soup choices and chose some salads from a banquet of perky selections. We placed our orders, paid at the very end of the counter, and then waited at our table for our food to arrive. The Split Pea and Barley Potage was brightly seasoned with the tang of lemon and dill we all agreed was exceptional. Flavorful, satisfying, and nearly speaking to us in Italian was the Slow-Roasted Tomato and Red Miso Bisque drizzled with basil oil and garnished with sourdough croutons. Corn chowder lovers would be missing a special treat if they passed up the Lotus Root and Sweet Corn Chowder with its combo of sweet and savory seasonings and generous quantity of chopped veggies.

Bento BoxR: Curious about the Inari Sushi, we ordered one topped with grilled eggplant as well as one of the shiitake-topped little tofu pockets and found both were tastefully seasoned tidbits that made ideal starters. Following the long-established macrobiotic tradition of consuming only locally grown foods, the restaurant prepares sushi with organic, heirloom, whole-grain brown rice grown in Central California.

Z: With so many tempting salad choices. we were challenged to make decisions, but finally settled on a Four-Salad Combo that included the Scarlet Quinoa Salad, Kale Salad, New Mexican Black Bean and Barley Salad, and the Green Bean Salad with Roasted Sesame Sauce. Each stood out with innovative touches, bright colors, and seasonings that tingled the taste buds. Topping the salad dish was a bountiful serving of baby greens.

R: The dish that really surprised me was the Kale Salad. Normally I'm not enamored with kale and usually take a pass when it comes my way. But the Chaya chefs gave the kale a brief blanching, then doused it with a pungent peanut sauce that was so inviting my fork kept returning to the dish for yet another bite.

Z: The deli case's dessert section featured a tantalizing array of exquisitely prepared sweet treats all made in-house without refined sugar. They must have been infused with some magical force because we simply couldn't leave without ordering one. Each one was picturesque enough to appear at an emperor's table. The group decision was the Mocha Terrine, a rectangular extravaganza of dark chocolate cake made with banana and whole wheat flour and nestled between thick layers of rich, dark chocolate frosting.

Panino Provencale R: Still wanting to make our acquaintance was the Panino Provencale, one of many selections on the Sandwich, Burger, and Panini menu. We ordered a half sandwich and split it three ways. Between the layers of crusty, house-made foccacia bread were slices of grilled eggplant, onions, and bell peppers dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, and layered with arugula, pesto aoli and creamy, dairy-free tofu chevre, also made in-house.

Z: On a future visit, we'll choose one of the Bento Boxes that contain at least 10 different items and one of the appealing Rice Bowls--perhaps the Bi-Bim Bop, a delightful combo of marinated tofu and Korean-style vegetables dressed in a spicy miso sauce.

Bi-Bim Bop R: And next time, two selections from the lavish dessert section are a must. My sweet tooth is already craving those glistening sweet treats I left behind.

Z: We noted the portions, though quite adequate, are not enormous like the gargantuan plates served in many American restaurants. It felt good to leave comfortably full rather than overstuffed. We were pleased to learn that 80% of the food served was organic, contained no dairy, eggs, meat, or refined sugar. Maple sugar and brown rice syrup are the sweeteners used in their recipes. Vegans can be assured their soy cheese is casein-free.

R: A bustling venue only open a few months, M Café de Chaya has quickly gained a following and may well reshape the modus vivendi of trendy Los Angelenos seeking beautiful food that promotes health as well. Tsunoda revealed the restaurant's goal was "to close the gap between traditional macrobiotic and junk food." Clearly, they have succeeded. Chaya Desserts

M Café de Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046
Phone: 323-525-0588
FAX: 323-525-0310
Hours: Daily from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Reviewed October 2005

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