328 East 6th Street (b/n 2nd Avenue and 1st Avenue; map); 212-673-3984; chiyono.com
Cuisine: Japanese home cooking
Service: Eager to please
Veggie Options: One combination plate, a handful of small dishes
Cost: About $25 per person, excluding drinks
Japanese food is not always vegetarian-friendly, but Chiyono in the East Village makes a point of welcoming non-fish-or-meat-eating guests. Omnivores should definitely try Chiyono's juicy homemade pork gyoza and delicate miso-marinated grilled cod, but if you eschew both fish and fowl, you can still have a lovely, unusual dinner at Chiyono.
Our waitress pointed us toward vegetarian items on the menu, confirmed what dishes could be made with vegetarian dashi instead of traditional fish-based broth, and even made requests to the chef so that we could try a dish without its customary fish-roe garnish. We always recommend talking to your server or chef so they understand what you can and cannot eat—you may find that they are more accommodating and creative than you'd expect!
The resulting meal was a celebration of textures. We were treated to a parade of carefully-prepared fresh produce. It's not flashy food, but it's beautiful just the same.
We started with the Renkon-Ume-ae ($5.50) a tower of crunchy slices of lotus root dressed with flecks of tart pickled plum. It was a refreshing opening dish with a lightness that contrasted the earthy, roasted flavor of Chiyono's vegetarian miso soup ($3.25). It's rare to see miso soup prepared without fish-based dashi--this is the place to satisfy your craving.
We continued with the Kimpira ($4.75)—a bowl of chewy sautéed strands of burdock root and carrot tossed with sesame. The nuttiness of the sesame resonated deeply with the burdock's mild artichoke-like flavor.
More unusual was a salad of perfectly ripe avocado and sticky mountain yam ($6.95), a tuber which reminded us a little of jicama, except quite slippery! (Those unfamiliar with the texture might find it a little too slimy.)
A simple dish of kabocha squash ($4.75) was offered as a special when we visited; it's worth keeping an eye on the blackboard for seasonal vegetables as they appear. We loved the creamy texture of this preparation, though we did wish for some sort of sauce or garnish.
At this point, we were ready for something solid and warm, and the vegetarian combination plate ($15) fit the bill perfectly. The handmade vegetable gyoza were delicate and lovely, perfectly crimped and pan-fried, though our favorite dish on the plate was a mound of creamy eggplant and green pepper dressed with miso. The simple croquette of mashed potatoes and hijiki was perfectly crisp outside and creamy inside—if only there were more fried vegetables on the menu! (Though maybe we would have felt a little less virtuous after the meal if that were the case.) We loved the little bowl of lightly pickled cucumber, as well as the hijiki-infused nutty brown rice, which had a toothsome texture and just a whisper of seaweed's aromatic flavor.
Chef Chiyono Murano's cooking lets each ingredient shine—simple and delicate, with careful attention to the essential flavors of each element. While meat-eaters may prefer what the chef does with fish and pork, there are plenty of options at Chiyono to keep a vegetarian happy.
About the Author: Maggie Hoffman also writes about cooking for Pithy and Cleaver.