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Tofu for What Ails You 

Tasteful design and designed tastes rule at the vegan Medicine Eatstation

Wednesday, Jan 25 2006
By now everybody knows that You Are What You Eat. In an age when a book-flacking doctor appears on both Oprah and The View within a week, pushing as cancer- and Alzheimer-fighting agents avocado, blueberries, walnuts, and salmon (with which Oprah is so friendly, she calls it "sammy") one day, and dates, sweet potatoes, garlic, and dark chocolate (which thrills Barbara Walters) another, referencing carotenoids and antioxidants as he goes, is it any wonder that a restaurant should appear calling itself Medicine Eatstation?

The name is somewhat clunky; the location, at the edge of a second-floor mall food court that also features burritos, burgers, and chili, ever so slightly ironic. Accessing Medicine via its private ground-floor elevator on Sutter, under a gleaming metal sign, may provide more of a seamlessly Zen experience, as you ascend toward the clean design housing the clean menu inspired by the vegan cuisine favored by Japanese monks. The large airy room, with big windows overlooking the street, is both restful to the eye and beautiful, its carefully spaced, geometrically precise, light-wood communal tables referencing a monastery or a refectory. I'm not initially thrilled by the sight of the matching benches (call me crazy, but I like a chair with a back, especially when I'm planning on being at table for more than, say, 20 minutes), but in the event I'm sufficiently beguiled by the food and the company that I forget the lack of lumbar support. (Plus, I lean on my elbows. Maybe it's a Zen posture.)

The owners of Medicine Eatstation, despite the ponderous name, are not humorless: Stylish posters decorate the area behind the host podium (seatstation?) proclaiming the cuisine a "500-year-old fad diet." A descriptive paragraph on the menu is more serious, crediting the Japanese monks for devising a seasonal cuisine called Shojin, based on the ideal that "food should be taken as medicine for the health of the body." It further states that Medicine Eatstation calls its cooking "new-Shojin" "because we have given it a unique edge, and incorporated modern nutritional ideas." Alas, Shojin proscribes the use of garlic, onions, and hot spices (pace modern nutritional ideas); when I ask why, the response reminds me of Satchel Paige's "They angry up the blood," though he was referring to fried foods, which are all over Medicine's menu in the form of croquettes, tempura, fried tofu. Different strokes.

I'm seated at an intimate table in the back, one of a few arrayed under a wall-mounted plasma screen TV that cycles between a restful sylvan landscape and the restaurant's stylish "M" logo, while I sip a tall glass of savory almond milk. When Hiya, Jonathan, and Adam arrive we peruse the enticing list, which includes such poetic dish names as "jade nuggets" as well as even more poetic (if giggle-inducing) descriptions of sakes, such as "a retired fisherman overlooking the sea."

We begin with a number of appetizers. I love the sesame tofu, not a true soy tofu but a lovely, light, unsweet custard of sesame milk thickened with kudzu (the root of that vine some think will take over the Earth), which replicates the mouthfeel of an eggy, creamy pudding. I also enjoy the pretty Medicine Roll, "our signature sushi," made of nine-grain rice -- including black forbidden rice, which turns a purplish pink when cooked -- and sliced to reveal a colorful mosaic of umeboshi (pickled plum), avocado, shiso leaf, carrot, and kaiware (fresh green daikon sprouts). It's crunchy, vegetal, easy to eat. (There's a pretty container of mild soy sauce on the table.) The ungainly looking, nicely fried tempura of maitake mushrooms -- which I'd like better in smaller segments -- comes with a tiny dish of sea salt (which it needs) and lemon. The eggplant, a thick slice topped with sweet white miso paste, drizzled with toasted sesame oil, and broiled until it's soft and caramelized, is excellent. The oddest bite is the jade nuggets, two tempura'd shiso leaves filled with natto (fermented soy beans), a pungent, somewhat cheesy paste that oozes like hot peanut butter from the overwhelmed shiso wrapper, whose minty flavor, so refreshing in the sushi roll, is lost.

Next up are two salads. First we taste a delightful one that looks beige but tastes much more lively, with stacked slices of shaved lotus root, simmered shiitake and woodear mushrooms, and slivers of crisp apple in a creamy sesame dressing. Then it's the "crunchy salad," described as a "colorful mix of seasonal root vegetables, gingko nuts, candied walnuts, chestnuts, and yomogi-fu [a slightly sticky and chewy mugwort gluten]"; it is colorful, with bright-yellow nuts and green sliced yomogi-fu (which is glutinous indeed), but not as tasty as I'd like. (The small white crescents that look like the forbidden onion are grainy, tasteless fresh water chestnuts.)

The cascade of entrees that arrives looks promising. Jonathan loves his whole oven-roasted dumpling squash, sliced in half and filled with chopped squash, shimeji mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, avocado, and a white miso sauce, but I find it so rich that a spoonful or two would be enough. Adam's tofu yasi ankake is a lightly fried artisanal tofu coated with a vegetable sauce and served with nine-grain rice and fresh ginger; the tofu is impeccable, but the total effect is rather bland. The bowl of "aromatic savory sticky rice" blended with slivered mushrooms -- called braised mushrooms Gohan -- is also rather bland, despite its alluring description, but its accompanying plate of simple grilled vegetables is perhaps my favorite part of the entire meal: The vegetables are impeccably sourced, including the pale chartreuse hybrid broccoli-cauliflower called romanesco; the broccolini, which the otherwise knowledgeable hostess tells us is a cross between broccoli and asparagus, but which is more accurately described as a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale, aka gailan; oyster mushrooms; and red bell pepper. My plate of eight nigiri sushi pieces perfectly counterfeits the appearance of fish sushi; some are successful (tasty crumbled tofu, mimicking uni in appearance if not flavor; avocado on translucent pickled squash, a nice contrast of suave fat with crunch; the surprisingly vivid peeled red pepper), some not (a woody slice of trumpet mushroom, dull aged tofu).

I've been longing for Japanese noodles for weeks (because of the entrancing Mikio Naruse retrospective currently at the Pacific Film Archive), but the bowl of soba (buckwheat) noodles in broth we share here doesn't fulfill that longing. Its few ingredients -- including leafy greens the menu claims are fiddlehead ferns, a delicate spring vegetable whose characteristic curled tops are nowhere to be seen -- don't come together. On the whole, I prefer our starters.

We finish with a glass of coconut milk hiding gelatinous and chewy surprises (kanten cubes and mushroom slivers) in its depths under floating toasted buckwheat grains, and a Valrhona chocolate tofu mousse that initially tastes good, but which has the characteristic chalky aftertaste of tofu sweets. The most delicious item of the night is, astonishingly, the simplest: shaved ice topped with yuzu citrus syrup and the tiniest baby tangerine sections. (In Naruse's 1940 film Traveling Actors, I saw two men playing the front and hind legs of a horse cool off with a similar confection.) Another unexpected delight? The yuzu lemonade.

Last night I had a steak and a Manhattan after a double bill at "Noir City," and I must say I enjoyed my dinner at Medicine Eatstation much more. (I hope I'm not starring in a vegan version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) I'd happily return, especially for lunch, when the restaurant offers six multi-course meals (called "foundation sets") for $8.95-10.95. And I would always, always finish with the yuzu shaved ice.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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