With its emphasis on noodles, rice, tofu and lots and lots of vegetables, Japanese is one of the great vegetarian-friendly cuisines. In contrast to others like Vietnamese and Thai, styles that stand out for their use of bright herbs and firey-hot chiles, Japanese food relies on a stripped-down set of ingredients such as briny seaweed, buttery miso, and toasty sesame seeds that bring a deep soulfulness—and dare we say meatiness—to dishes. It's true that much of Japanese cooking relies on fish and fish stock, but with a few careful requests, it's easy to get a meat-free meal at any Japanese restaurant.
My love of Japanese food resides with its noodles: stretchy, chewy udon, or thick wheat flour noodles, and soba, dark, dense and nutty buckwheat noodles. That's why I was drawn to the Midtown restaurant Menchanko-Tei, which prepares its wheat noodles in-house daily and serves them up in three thicknesses, available stir-fried, chilled, and in soup.
But the restaurant's menu offers many non-noodle choices as well. On a recent evening I started with a cool, slippery appetizer of bamboo shoots with spicy oil ($3.75), the soft, sweet, and slightly pickled shoots offering up a warming heat and plenty of rich, roasty sesame seed flavor.
Onigiri, or rice balls ($2 each), arrived as conical mounds of warm, lightly seasoned white rice wrapped in a thin, tender layer of seaweed. An umeboshi, or pickled plum, filling was sweet and salty at the same time, and a filling of kombu, another type of seaweed, offered a hit of bracing salinity.
If you like fried food, no visit to a Japanese restaurant is complete without an order of tempura. Menchenko-Tei offers a mixed veggie plate ($7.95); it usually includes fried shrimp, so be sure to ask for just vegetables. Of the carrots, eggplant, and mushrooms on the plate, the real standout was the okra tempura: feather-light and stripped of any sliminess, the bright-green pods were perfectly complemented by the greaseless, airy shell of batter that encased them.
A plate of stir-fried eggplant with ginger ($5.50, pictured at top) featured beautifully browned, creamy chunks of Japanese eggplant with tons of ginger flavor, showered with crunchy sesame seeds and crisp green onions.
Finally, the real star of the meal was a deep bowl of vegetarian menchanko noodles ($9.50): a tangle of springy noodles served in a deeply flavored vegetarian broth prepared with kelp and miso. Tender, sweet Napa cabbage, earthy wilted spinach, and chewy sliced mushrooms rounded out the soup, as well as cubes of both fresh and deep-fried tofu and a raw egg ($1 additional) that cooked as it sat in the hot broth.
If you find yourself in Midtown looking for a hearty, satisfying and affordable vegetarian meal, Menchenko-Tei is a worthy destination.