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Friday, March 14, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Vegetarianism for all
"Eat Your Vegetables." This is not your mother speaking, admonishing you at age 5 to clear your plate. It is the cheerful philosophy -- think of it as an invitation, not a command -- that underpins Cafe Eight, perhaps our favorite vegetarian restaurant in all of eastern Japan.
The motto is emblazoned across the T-shirts of the young, friendly and predominantly female staff who work here, but this is more than just cute sloganeering. Cafe Eight embraces the vegan ethos, which means the kitchen prepares no meat, fish or chicken, no milk or other dairy products (with just one exception), and shuns even honey. Instead, the emphasis is on whole grains -- genmai (brown rice) and a wide range of wholesome breads. It sounds austere, ascetic even, but eating here is far from doing penance. It's a pleasure.
In large part, that is due to the setting, on the top floor of Time & Style, one of the more interesting purveyors of designer furnishings in the Aoyama area. The galleries on the lower floors adopt the requisite look of chilly minimalism, but once you reach Cafe Eight you find a warm, inviting room, filled with sunlight during the day, and mellow, low-key lighting by night.
It is a curious melange of designer chic -- book shelves and standard lamps -- and casual, laid-back neo-hippy. In one corner there is a display of rustic bread for sale; along the side they offer hip T-shirts and CDs. The comfy rattan armchairs are drawn up to sleek, dark wood tables. Underfoot, the planks are coarse and unvarnished. Graffiti art covers the walls (although the current display will soon be changed). A plastic soccer ball is tucked under the counter, to amuse the staff in their odd moments of downtime. At the back there's a small terrace with a great view over the Aoyama rooftops.
Earlier generations of Tokyo's vegetarian restaurants tended to adopt the stern simplicity of Zen, both in their serious attitude toward addressing dietary concerns and in composing their menus. But Cafe Eight espouses influences that are much more relaxed and cosmopolitan. Their soy lattes and tofu cheesecakes wouldn't be out of place in Santa Cruz, St. Kilda or a beach bar in Kuta. Nor would the ska music that plays in the background.
The menu is penned by hand and changed every day except for a core group of dishes. At lunchtime they offer a choice of four or five set meals; during the afternoon, light snacks are available, and in the evening you order a la carte. Their excellent soups are served throughout the day. When we dropped in last week, it was a thick potage of pureed beans and spring cabbage, with a pronounced accent of fennel. Served with a few slices of dark bread, it was warming and satisfying.
Ditto for their fried rice plate. The genmai was stir-fried with plenty of cabbage, shreds of green shiso leaf and seasoned with sesame seeds, plenty of shoyu and a distinctive (but not overpowering) amount of garlic. As a counterpoint for eyes and palate, the rice was served with half of one of Cafe Eight's trademark "summer rolls." In all but name, these are Vietnamese-style spring rolls filled entirely with salad vegetables but no rice noodles, shrimp or meat.
One of the strong points of Cafe Eight is that the chefs understand that poorly cooked genmai, as hard as bullets, is neither tasty nor digestible. They avoid the problem by using a pressure cooker, resulting in rice that is soft and well-cooked. That doesn't mean you shouldn't need to exercise your jaws, though. The more you chew brown rice, the tastier it gets, and the more its sweet, nutty flavor comes out.
They also keep their seasonings at just the right levels. Some health food restaurants are overly bland; others compensate for the absence of meat by cranking up the sodium and spices. That is not the case at Cafe Eight. The basic inspiration for their curries is Indian, although sometimes they veer toward the coconut-milk sweetness of Sri Lanka, but they're never too hot, just mildly piquant. Order some genmai and a bowl of their mixed salad greens, anointed with a creamy dressing based on tahini (ground sesame), and you will have a highly acceptable square meal.
In the evening, the menu includes a selection of simple starters -- the same summer rolls; "sashimi" of fresh, ripe avocado served with a dip of shoyu and wasabi (it works surprisingly well); or our favorite, fried gyoza containing finely minced tofu, mushroom and vegetables stuffed inside thick dough casings that make them more like piroshki. Of the main dishes, the fried noodles -- flat Thai-style bifun rice noodles cooked up with plenty of mushrooms and cabbage -- were light and tasty; the genmai risotto was disappointing, though, being overwhelmed by the tomato sauce.
The only area at Cafe Eight where enthusiasm and ideology win at the expense of good taste is on the dessert menu. In our book, tofu has no place in sweets, and using it as a substitute for cream is as misguided as replacing butter with margarine -- it may (possibly) be better for you, but it just doesn't hit the mark. Nor do the heavy steamed sponge cakes, or the chocolate-flavored oatmeal porridge.
Thankfully there is nothing in veganism forbidding alcohol. In addition to the local Yebisu beer, they stock two organic brews -- including a wonderful ale from Brakspear of Henley-on-Thames, one of England's best small brewers. They have also put together a good selection of cocktails and wine, of which half a dozen are of organic provenance.
In the evening, after the restaurant closes, the reggae turns to jazzy beats and Cafe Eight segues into its late-night incarnation, known as Bar Eight. It's a mellow lounge space that is pleasant at any time of year. When the weather turns warm, the place to be is out back on that terrace, gazing across to the lights of the massive Roppongi Hills complex. There is surely nowhere in town where being vegetarian is more enjoyable or more gratifying.
Note that Cafe Eight is changing its opening times from April 1: Sunday-Thursday and holidays: brunch 11 a.m.-2.30 p.m. (last order); cafe 3-6 p.m.; dinner 6-10 p.m. (last order); bar: 10:30 p.m-3 a.m. Friday, Saturday (and days before public holidays): dinner till 10.30 p.m. (last order); bar: till 5 a.m. The cafe will close only on the third Wednesday of every month.