Meatless
By Miriam Wolf

Mad about you

GUESS WHAT HAPPENED since the last time I wrote this column? –They finally found mad cow disease in a U.S. cow, and now everyone's a vegetarian! I didn't know if you'd heard this or not because it's been seriously underreported in the meat-centric press.

Well, maybe not everyone is a vegetarian yet. And while some vegetarian activists, such as VegNews editor Joseph Connelly, believe the crisis shouldn't be used as a tool to recruit meat eaters into the vegetarian fold, I still think a timely reminder to your friend eating the hamburger over there that "spongiform encephalopathy" really means "spongy brain disease" is not out of line.

On the other hand, it looks like unless we all do become vegetarians, it really won't matter. Prions (the infectious agents that transmit bovine spongiform encephalopathy), it seems, cannot be destroyed in hot soapy water, like bacteria. They can't be destroyed in the microwave. Nor by the dishwasher, bleach, or even ultraviolet light.

In fact, short of nuclear holocaust, prions cannot be destroyed. Which makes eating even a delightful dish of vegetarian chow fun somewhat suspect if it's been cooked in the same wok that fried up an order of beef with broccoli.

So although we vegetarians may look at mad cow disease and think, "whew, dodged a bullet there," the mess enormous factorylike slaughterhouses and other big agriculture concerns have made of our food supply is a problem for everyone.

But until big agribusiness is dismantled, we're lucky to have restaurants like Cha-Ya, where the utensils haven't been keeping company with meat. Cha-Ya, in Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue gourmet ghetto, takes the clear, subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine and translates them into vegan dishes.

The tiny restaurant can hold maybe 15 people max and is wildly popular. We arrived one Sunday night about 20 minutes after the restaurant opened and faced a waiting list that was already five parties long.

What draws people to stand out in the cold for up to an hour is the promise that everything on the extensive menu is delicious and vegan. Sure, at many Japanese restaurants you can get a bowl of miso and a kappa maki, but at Cha-Ya you can feast endlessly on sushi, noodles, tempura, stews, and other Japanese dishes both homey and ethereal. Japan has a history of vegetarian cuisine because of its Buddhist tradition, and Cha-Ya capitalizes on that rich history.

Cha-Ya begins to surprise almost as soon as the meal begins. The sunomono cucumber salad, a staple of many a Japanese menu, here features a light rice vinaigrette and an accent of chewy, sweet pieces of dried persimmon.

Cha-Ya's sushi is inventive and well made. The rice is fine-grained and perfectly seasoned, and aside from the familiar kappa, avocado, and oshinko rolls, Cha-Ya also offers sushi rolls with tempura inside (and rolls that are tempura-ed themselves), sea vegetable rolls, and even a packed-with-veggies roll in which the rice is replaced with soba noodles.

The deep bowl of udon is full of noodles; the broth is flavorful without being too salty – and it's reliably free of bonito. Veggie tempura is light and grease free.

Among the more unusual offerings is "Moon Garden," a bowl of soft tofu "custard" artfully planted with bright vegetables: tiny mushrooms, kabocha squash, snow peas, asparagus, and ginkgo nuts. The subtle custard makes a great canvas for the flavors of the perfectly cooked vegetables. This is the ultimate comfort food – light but creamy and satisfying. It's perfect for a cold winter's night.

Even more rustically appealing is a bowl of taka-sui, gyoza in clay pot. Bean-thread noodles, thin-skinned Japanese dumplings, vegetables, and tofu are submerged in a delicious broth that tastes earthy and vegetal. The ponzu-citrus sauce served alongside adds some much appreciated bright notes to the dish.

Despite the roil of people waiting outside, dining at Cha-Ya is a relaxing experience. Service is quick and friendly; the interior is bright and inviting. Tables aren't even as close together as you might expect in such a tiny space.

Vegetarian-friendly restaurants are great – we need all the friends we can get. But dining at a 100 percent vegetarian or, even better, vegan restaurant is so much more rewarding. Why settle for a tiny corner of the menu when you can range over the whole thing without worrying about hidden minefields of chicken stock or fish sauce? Best of all is a restaurant like Cha-Ya, where the food is not just regular Japanese dishes made meatless but also a creative and delicious vegan cuisine all its own.

Cha-Ya. 1686 Shattuck (at Virginia), Berk. (510) 981-1213. Dinner, Tues.-Sun., 5-9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout available. MasterCard, Visa. Wheelchair accessible. E-mail Miriam Wolf at miriam@coolcopy.com.
E-mail Miriam Wolf at miriam@coolcopy.com.


January 28, 2004