Shizen Ya -
I’ve never been to any restaurant that purport to serve food made from mainly organic, sustainable, environmentally conscious, and “healthy” ingredients. More often than not, these restaurants are vegetarian/vegan places that serves tofu this, soy that, raw sprouts Y, wheat X, germ of some sort, lots of quinoa, or grass and hay (I think I’ve just offended half the local population). I simply can’t get myself up for a meal at one of these restaurants after reading their menus. I’d rather be labelled a big, bad, enemy-of-the-environment than eat a meal at one of these places.
But when I heard about the organic, sustainable, and health focused Japanese restaurant called Shizen Ya, I was intrigued. Their menu read like a typical Japanese restaurant’s menu, and their ingredients sounded pretty acceptable to me. Local, sustainably caught fish tastes just as good as unsustainably caught fish (I might be wrong, but isn’t sustainable fish just fish caught from larger populations?), and local probably means fresher. Tofu is tofu, and organic tofu tastes no different than non-organic tofu. Brown rice was something that I like and something that I eat on a daily basis, so I have no problems with brown rice. And organic greens probably have better flavours than pesticide greens; that’s another positive.
So I decided to give the restaurant a try for lunch today with my wife and my son.
I was surprised at how small the restaurant was. The dining room was very narrow, and I think that at maximum capacity, the restaurant could probably uncomfortably squeeze in 17-19 diners.
In case you forgot or didn’t know what kind of Japanese restaurant you walked into, they tell what they’re all about on the front cover of their menu.
We knew what they were about, but we ordered items that we would ordinarily order at any Japanese restaurant. Picking out the healthiest and most environmentally dish to order off the menu was not what we were all about.
We ordered their signature Sakura Blossom Roll to share.
There was real crab, albacore tuna, cucumber, organic avocado on the inside of this inside-out roll, with brown rice and sockeye salmon forming the outer two layers. There was also supposedly some sort of maple dressing, but I don’t recall tasting any of it. In fact, the flavours of the brown sushi rice were so bold that I wasn’t able to detect a lot of flavours from the other ingredients. The most I got out of the other ingredients were their textures. I was able to enjoy the creaminess of the avocado, the juicy crunch of the cumber, and the tenderness of the sockeye salmon. The only thing with the salmon was that they kept falling off when I tried to pick each piece of the roll up with my chopsticks. Not once did I manage to pick up a piece of the roll without the salmon falling off.
My conclusions on the Sakura Blossom Roll? I liked it. Despite the fact that the flavours of the brown rice were a bit overpowering, I liked the fact that it was a departure from the ordinary.
We also had a Spicy Tuna Quinoa Cone.
Yes, yes, I know. A quinoa dish. How “healthy” of me. I couldn’t help it. I had to order something off their specials board and every item on the board was quinoa-based. The spicy tuna looked the most appealing, and I placed my faith in it.
You know what? The quinoa played a very minor role in both the textures and the flavours of the roll. The included greens made the roll taste like a handheld salad with a little bit of faintly spicy tuna added in. The portable salad definitely tasted fresh, crisp, light, and juicy; but it tasted nothing like a sushi cone. And for a salad, there should’ve been more greens included. I finished the entire cone in three or four bites. I wanted more. Either they include more greens, or they include more spicy tuna with the same amount of greens. I just wanted more of something.
My wife had the Chirashi Don.
The chirashi came with brown sushi rice, two slices each of sockeye salmon and albacore tuna, one cooked shrimp, some negitoro, a bit of greens, sprouts, nori, ginger and wasabi.
My wife said that raw fish tasted fresh and lean, while the shrimp had a nice bouncy texture. She also thought that the pickled ginger tasted pretty good. Her favorite component of the bowl was the brown sushi rice. She liked the fact that even though the overall texture of the collective vinegar-infused grains of brown rice was moist, each individual grain retained a bitey and firm texture. She liked the rice so much that she insisted on finishing the brown rice even when she had half a bowl left after she finished all the other components of the bowl. This was unusual for her because rice is usually not her favorite starch.
I had the Triple Attack Rice Bowl.
My bowl came with two slices of albacore, two slices of sockeye, a blob of spinach, a little piece of radicchio, nori, ginger and wasabi. Like my wife, I thought that both the sockeye and the albacore tasted fresh. Their flavours were sort of muted by the brown rice, but they had a firmer texture that was indicative of their freshness. The blob of spinach was only ok. It tasted like any other blob of marinated spinach that could be had at any other Japanese restaurant.
Also like my wife, I thought that the brown sushi rice was the star of the bowl. It was gooey yet firm, and had a sticky nato-like texture. I liked it a lot and also ate a lot of it; I just wasn’t able to finish all of it without more slices of raw fish. If they included more variety and more slices of the raw fish (but that would mean straying away from sustainability), I think the resulting chirashi would be pretty hard to beat. Actually, a better idea would be for other Japanese restaurants already serving a deluxe chirashi to switch to brown sushi rice…but that idea would probably not gain any amount of traction with sushi chefs who were staunch traditionalists.
We ordered the Chicken Breast in Miso Teriyaki Sauce for our son.
All white meat chicken breast with no skin in a light miso-teriyaki sauce. What is this, lean cuisine? My son seemed to like it, but I didn’t think it would be any good. The chicken looked dry and the sauce was so light colored that I could taste its blandness just by looking at it.
After my son was full, I took his one leftover piece of chicken and tried it. It tasted like it looked: dry, very dry. The teriyaki sauce was also as light tasting as its colors indicated. I guess this dish would appeal to someone who’s on a diet: after eating meat so dry and sauce so bland, I wouldn’t have the appetite to eat anything else.
But it was my son’s dish and he liked it, so who am I to criticize the dish?
The meal felt so healthy that we felt like we should have some dessert to pile on a few more calories. We were deciding between their organic tofu cookies and their green tea creme brulee. We asked our server to make the decision for us, and she offered us some samples of the cookies to try.
The tofu cookies came in two flavours: original and green tea. The green tea had a very strong matcha flavour. Matcha flavour happens to go very well with sweetness so this sweet matcha-flavoured cookie was tasty.
The original flavoured cookie tasted even better than the green tea version. The original tofu cookie tasted almost exactly like Taiwanese “square crisp” cookies (sorry, I don’t have an exact translation of the name). The cookies had a very enjoyable dry and powdery texture.
Since we already got a taste of the two types of tofu cookies, we of course ordered the Green Tea Creme Brulee as our dessert.
I’m not usually a fan of creme brulee. Actually, the only type of creme brulee that I will even order is the Japanese green tea version that is available in many local Japanese restaurants. Comparing this version with other versions of Japanese green tea creme brulee, I would say that this version was pretty good. It wasn’t too sweet and had a very pronounced green tea flavour. Sweetness only came from the layer of caramelized sugar up top. The caramelized sugar shard also provided a nice, crispy textural contrast to the Japanese-pudding like texture of the custard on the bottom.
If not for the brown sushi rice, the food we were served today at Shizen Ya would resemble the food of an average local middle-of-the-pack Japanese restaurant. But the brown sushi rice just made everything that came with it a winning dish. I usually place a lot of emphasis on the texture, flavour, and temperature of sushi rice used in different kinds of sushi, but the difference in quality between excellently prepared sushi rice and poorly prepared sushi rice is small compared to the night-and-day difference between brown sushi rice and white sushi rice. Its so good that I’m probably putting Shizen Ya on the regular rotation of restaurants that my family and I frequent…come to think of it, the brown sushi rice looks so simple to prepare that I might even try my hand at mixing it one of these days when I have nothing better to do.