Monday, 17 August 2009

Cha-Ya, San Francisco

A second San Francisco post. Also a second place called Chaya (after this one in Shinjuku), in this case a Japanese vegan restaurant. Please be aware that there is another restaurant in San Francisco called Chaya Brasserie by the waterfront, which serves Japanese/French fusion cuisine and probably will hurt your wallet a bit more than the more humble Cha-ya in the trendier/shabbier area on Valencia Street (cue thrift shops, dive bars, coffeehouses, interesting shops) in Inner Mission. Cha-ya offers Japanese vegan food that is inspired by Zen cooking. See the menu here. It had a very impressive variety of options which meant it took a long time to decide what to order - not an issue that we are used to as vegetarians!

As we weren't particularly hungry after a big lunch earlier in the day, got a selection of relatively small dishes between three of us - two normal plates of sushi rolls, the intriguing sounding soba suhsi, 'hangetsu' (fried mushroom) and a bowl of mushroom udon.

Avocado hosomaki 'reverse rolls' (the rice is outside the seaweed) and, below, spinach and mushroom ones.

Avocado rolls
Spinach and mushroom rolls

These were good sushi, in particular the big chunks of soft avocado.

The soba sushi were a bigger and much more expensive plate ($10.50) and were something which we had never seen before - sushi with buckwheat noodles in place of the rice.

Soba sushi
Unfortunately they were definitely the most disappointing item. They were a bit full of different vegetables and tofu to get much in the way of taste from the noodles when biting in, and as the noodles don't allow sauce to soak in like rice (in this case a soba sauce rather than soy sauce was provided) you don't get much flavour from that route either. Good to see some experimentation but it didn't turn out so well in this case!

On the other hand...

Fried mushrooms

The fried portobello mushrooms (layered with tofu and light batter and deep-fried and served with kiwi fruit sauce) were delicious. They were lightly battered to keep the mushroom taste and texture, but with an additional great combination of tastes from the batter and the sweet kiwi fruit sauce. Definitely recommended.

Finally, the mushroom udon.

Mushroom udon

The noodles were actually more brown than is usually the case for udon, which I was happy with. It was a rather mild flavoured dish, but it has a nice homely taste.

The whole lot came to $40 - not that really cheap but with good ingredients and presentation and some interesting ideas, we were quite happy with our dinning experience. There is also another branch of Cha-ya in Berkeley across the Bay, so it's worth checking out if you are in the Bay Area.

762 Valencia St
(between 18th St & 19th St)
San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
(415) 252-7825

Monday, 10 August 2009

Little Fire Pot, San Francisco

We spent some time in San Francisco in the summer and thought that we should at least post about a couple of the more interesting/vegetarian places.

First up is Little Fire Pot, a restaurant specialising in hot pot cuisine, also known as Chinese fondue or steamboat, something similar to 'shabu shabu' - basically cooking your food in a simmering hot pot of broth at the table. It is popular in East Asian countries with local variations on the ingredients and the soup base. Traditionally, a big hot pot is shared amongst everyone on the table, so it is a sort of group cooking and eating activity. However, at Little Fire Pot, they serve the personal 'mini' hot pots that are popular in Taiwan, where each person gets his/her own pot. Having your own pot might eliminate some of the 'fun' of communal cooking, but then you get the freedom to choose your own soup base according to your taste (there is a variety of spicy, non-spicy, meat, non-meat soup base to choose from at Little Fire Pot), which can please both vegetarian and non-veg diners in the party.

This restaurant seemed to be a popular spot for families, at least based on the number of young children there at the same time as we were! There were 6 of us in our group, and 3 of us were vegetarians.

Our full selection of food prior to cooking

Between three veggies, we decided to get two of the 'Deluxe vegetarian hot pot' ($18.99 each) and an additional mushroom platter (with enoki, shitake and oyster mushrooms). As was not an uncommon experience in the US, it turned out it was really rather a lot of food! Each set meal came with a pot of mushroom broth, a huge bowl of vegetables (see photo above) which consisted of corn, tomatoes, cauliflower, taro, tree fungus (also known as wood ear or cloud ear), spinach, yam, tofu, a few different types of mushroom and more!

Mushroom platter

We probably would have been ok without the extra mushroom platter! The 'veg meat' platter, which was part of the set, came with some imitation/mock meat that is common in Chinese vegetarian cooking. It was basically an assortment of veggie meat balls, mutton and meat chunks, which tend to be a bit chewy and taste like meat a bit in texture. The 'balls' tend to have a kind of hard but crisp and smooth texture, which is similar to typical Asian meat/fish balls, significantly different from the Western meat balls - according to IF, that could be an acquired taste for those who are not used to this texture.

Vegetarian meat platter

Each set also came with a choice of side/starch, which were udon, yam vermiceilli, bean vermiceilli, egg noodle, sliced ricecake (Shanghainese nian gao), or rice! We decided to give the udon and yam vermicelli a try. We also ordered the vegan satay sauce for dipping the cooked food.

Hot pot in action

It was still quite a social way of eating even though we had our personal pots - since the dining process was quite long as we all had to cook, well or boil, our own food at the table, definitely great for chatting and catching up with friends you haven't seen for a while! It is also quite fun, maybe it is a bit like a lucky dip, you just put the hot pot spoon/ladle in the soup and see what would pick up! We vegetarians didn't have to worry about the danger of under cooking things; actually it was probably best to pace yourself since you probably don't have to over cook some of the stuff too much as you probably can't eat things very quickly (cos they would be piping hot!).

In case you weren't too full after all this hot potting, there was an okay selection of 'free' dessert - taro sago/tapioca dessert 'soup', coconut pudding and fruits.

Overall, our experience at Little Fire Pot was pretty good. It was probably a combination of the food and the process of cooking, eating and socialising made it a rather fun evening. Additionally, for those who are familiar with the SF Bay Area, San Francisco (and Daly City) summers are often far from being warm, so hot pot was definitely a good idea on a chilly day. Little Fire Pot is located at the back side of the Westlake Centre in Daly City, very near the border of San Francisco, so not hard to get to if you have a car (plenty of parking nearby). There are probably quite a lot of hot pot restaurants in the San Francisco area, but this place is definitely friendly for both veg and non-veg friends.

Little Fire Pot
470 Westlake Center (on Lake Merced Blvd)
Daly City, CA 94015, USA
(650) 992-0888