I had never been to Cha-Ya, the much-vaunted vegan Japanese restaurant in North Berkeley. But this week, in a valiant effort to put as much pickled burdock in my mouth as possible, I tried not only the Berkeley Cha-Ya, but the new San Francisco outpost, too. The things I do for you.
Regulars to the Berkeley restaurant should chime in, because I fear that my friend Shree and I took a misstep in ordering. I'd like to know what we did wrong, because the reality just did not live up to the hype. (And, that's right, no photos. Bad blogger! Blame the broken camera -- and check out Rae's lovely photos.)
As we expected, we waited a loooong time for a table. The Berkeley Cha-Ya is notorious for the long wait. It was a nice evening, and it gave us plenty of time to look over the menu, which we did not do, because we were busy catching up. The space is very small, and, as I said, very popular. We probably waited about 40 minutes (and, at the end of our meal, were shooed out to make way for others patiently waiting).
The menu is a little confusing. It's amazing how many permutations of vegetables, rice, and noodles there can be. We started with haru maki ($6) -- vegetarian (natch) spring rolls, lightly fried. They had asparagus, shiitake, carrots, beans, tofu, and silver noodles, all wrapped up nice and tight in a lightly fried package. Slightly greasy, served with a sweet dipping sauce. The vegetables seemed too soft -- I like my vegetables to bite back a little, you know, and these just gave in rather easily. Put up a fight, dammit.
Shree then had the taku-sui ($7.75), a big bowl of pot stickers and vegetables in broth. This was the big disappointment. It fell prey to the vegetarian stereotype (to which I generally do not subscribe): bland, cabbagey, boring. The potstickers tasted like they came from Trader Joe's, which I highly doubt, but still.
I had the hana gomoku ($8.50), which seemed like a vegetarian version of chirashi sushi: sushi rice in a bowl topped with artfully displayed vegetables. Plenty of good hijiki mixed in with the rice, and a nice helping of pickled ginger to fire up the tastebuds. Again, I could have used a little more toothsomeness in the vegetables, but it was clean-tasting and fresh.
Shree, needing a little palate pick-me-up after her bland bowl of taku-sui, suggested we order a roll, specifically the umekyu ($3.95). It was the perfect ending (though perhaps should have been the beginning) -- the bitter-bright flavor of pickled plum and the cool cucumber put us in better spirits. And I was ready to face the next Cha-Ya.
It was two days later, actually. The San Francisco Cha-Ya (762 Valencia, next to New College) can't be missed. In a rather odd contrast to its mellow Berkeley sister, SF Cha-Ya glows like a fluorescent beacon. The lighting is horrible, as Tablehopper has reported. But perhaps fluorescence greases the wheels: we walked in at 7:30 and got seated immediately. The SF outpost is bigger than its Berkeley sibling, and maybe word has not yet spread enough to make for long waits.
The SF menu is exactly the same. They even left the sake and beer on the menu -- despite the fact that they do not yet have a liquor license. You can plan your booze for future visits. Kara and I shared a few dishes, and while the overall impression of the food was better, the ambience needs a little work. It's like a doctor's office in there.
We had the goma ae ($5.75) -- blanched spinach and broccolini with a flavorful sesame dressing. The spinach was shaped into a pleasing spinach log, which did not mask the fact that it was plain blanched spinach. Thank god for the dressing -- pleasantly oily and thick. We then branched into tempura sushi, sharing the vegetable tempura roll (squash, carrots, yam, and green beans, tempura'd as a whole and then wrapped in rice and nori, $6.75) and the Shattuck roll (tempura'd asparagus and yam, $6.75). The tempura batter was not too thick, not too greasy, and offered a nice crunch. The rolls were definitely the high point. We also had the kinoko soba ($8.50) -- a medley of mushrooms and soba noodles in a light broth.
It was plenty of food -- I don't think we finished it all. Overall, I was surprised at how lackluster both restaurants were. Good for vegetarians, yes -- as Shree said, she was happy that she could walk in knowing that she could order absolutely everything on the menu. But everyone knows by know that sacrificing meat (figuratively) doesn't mean sacrificing flavor, and Cha-Ya's glowing reputation wasn't clearly defended. I know others feel differently, and I would certainly be willing to give it more chances -- there's certainly plenty more to try on the menu.
1686 Shattuck Ave.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted.
Dinner Sun-Thurs, 5-9:30pm
762 Valencia St. (near 18th St.)
San Francisco, CA
No reservations, no credit cards (for now).