VeganMoFo 2019: Cafe Aina, Osaka

We spent three nights in Osaka, and truthfully I’d say it was too long. The best thing we did in Osaka was actually get a train to a different town! It was a 20 minute train ride to nearby Ikoma, for a day trip that was one of the highlights of our three weeks in Japan. In fact, it was possibly the most fun I’d ever had!

Ikoma is home to a small, family-friendly theme park which you can reach by taking two novelty cable cars. There are four different ones, but there were two that I particularly wanted to ride: the dog train…

…and the cake train!

It was truly everything I’d hoped for!

And the theme park at the top was wonderful! It was all bright colours, animals, and exciting games. Unlike at Fuji-Q Highland, this time there was no need for the signs telling me which rides were dog-friendly – everything here was gentle and colourful, and suitable for a scaredy cat like me! I’m not sure how much Dr HH enjoyed going on all the baby rides, but I was in my element! So if you do intend to stay in Osaka, make sure you get out of Osaka to visit this place!

The other great thing about Osaka was the food. We really loved Cafe Aina, which we visited when we returned from Ikoma. It’s a vegetarian place with plenty of vegan options – although there were plenty, Dr HH and I both ordered the same thing. Dumplings!

We were not expecting the portion to be quite so generous. There were a lot of these tasty little dumplings – the filling was great, and they were nicely steamed. There were some more surprises in the side dishes too. The little dish of noodles was really good, and in amongst the salad was one piece of tempura veg and a couple of chunks of karaage (my beloved fried chicken). Delicious! It was all very reasonably priced too, given the massive size. This was also a really friendly place to visit, and we’d recommend it to anyone visiting Osaka.

Is there ever such a thing as too many dumplings? Would you like to ride the dog/cake train?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Yunri and Cafe Atl

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Happy Cow, and we relied heavily on the app for nearby vegan options while we were in Japan. Opening hours were quite strange and unpredictable, cities were huge, and we didn’t always know where we’d be when hunger struck, so the Happy Cow app was a lifesaver. And there were times when the eateries we visited had no vegan options labelled, so we were relying on the reviews of other users to specify which dishes were safe for us.

Such was the situation at Yunri (as it was called on Happy Cow; the sign on the building actually said Unryu), a small Chinese place with no English menu. Other Happy Cow users had identified #6 and #12 as vegan, so we pointed at them on the picture menu and hoped for the best. (It’s absolutely not a tourist or trendy spot, so be prepared for a bit of hustle and bustle if you go in).

Above is the #6: big, delicious, flat noodles topped with greens in a solid but simple savoury broth – it didn’t have the depth of flavour of the excellent ramen dishes we’d tried, but it was good. In this case, the noodles were the real star of the show, they were amazing! Also amazing? The portion size! No complaints from me!

Dr HH went for the #12, which had the same noodles in a very spicy sauce. He enjoyed how spicy it was, but lamented the fact that there wasn’t much else going on. Still, we were largely satisfied customers.

Despite the gigantic portions, we still had room in our dessert bellies. Luckily, Cafe Atl was just a few minutes away. It was a pleasant, laid back little place that had a few lunch sets as well, but we only had eyes for the cake. They had five different raw vegan cake options. Dr HH tried white chocolate and raisin, which I thought quite a bold choice – vegan white chocolate isn’t always great (Vego notwithstanding, obviously). He declared this pleasantly sweet and creamy, but not very strongly flavoured.

I went for the good old cacao cake which was really good and chocolatey. The dollop of cream was really good too!

While they were both good and we liked the calm, clean surroundings, it’s worth noting that these two tiny pieces of cake with one cup of coffee cost the same amount as our massive lunch. You pay for them to put the word “vegan” on the menu, I suppose!

Do you also get overcharged for vegan cake in your neck of the woods?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Minto and The Giving Tree Cafe, Osaka

Weird. That’s the first word I wrote in my notebook about Minto in Osaka. It was just weird. We were looking for an eatery close to the train station, and Happy Cow was giving us this as a good option, so off we went for a very peculiar experience.

First of all, it was a slightly decrepit looking place. Mismatched furniture and shabbiness can have a certain chicness sometimes, but here it just looked quite run down. It didn’t really help that it was quite a big space, spread across at least three different rooms, and there was nobody there but us. There was someone working at the bar, so we made our way into their room to try to see the menu. Alas, it was the grumpiest person we encountered in Japan the whole time we were there. I’d found Japanese people disconcertingly polite and attentive, but this guy was sullen and monosyllabic and so we didn’t feel confident asking him for further info to help us fathom the menu.

There’s only one menu available, and it’s there at the bar. Happy Cow lists them as a veggie establishment, but the first few pages of the menu were full of meaty curries, so we were quite confused. There was only one dish that was actually labelled vegan, so we got that and just hoped for the best. We were given a little pager that went off when the food was ready, and we had to go and collect it from the bar. Again, pretty weird.

On the plus side, that one vegan option was very good indeed! I was fully expecting to hate it, based on the weird service and atmosphere, but it was lovely. We got tofu peanut butter masala which had incredible depth of flavour and was spicy without being fiery. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a dish like this on a menu anywhere else, and I’m really keen to recreate it now. We had a few Indian dishes during our travels, and this was the best. The menu had promised paratha, but we got boring old rice instead; further proof that it was not our day.

I was a bit unsettled after a not particularly relaxing experience there, and just wanted to sit somewhere nice – so we took a five minute walk round to The Giving Tree Cafe, which turned out to be a teeny tiny place with lots of daylight and friendly service. Phew! They just had one vegan dessert, which was a chocolate pudding (a nice smooth texture, but quite bland) topped with soy yoghurt (this really brought the flavour!). And the coffee came with two crunchy little cinnamon cookies, which the staff told us were vegan. This whole experience was just the palate cleanser we needed.

The real question is, would it be worth going back to Minto for that curry and risking the weirdness a second time?!

What’s the weirdest, most confusing eatery you’ve ever been to?¬†

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VeganMoFo 2019: Paprika Shokudo Vegan, Osaka

We loved our stay in Kyoto so much. It was a lovely place to visit, and I’m already dreaming of a return trip – we were so tired that we didn’t have time to see all the temples we’d wanted to, so we could comfortably go back and hit all different places. Osaka was kind of the opposite…it turned out that there wasn’t actually that much that we wanted to do there, and we’d planned too many days there. On the plus side, though, the vegan food situation was great!

Paprika was a fun place – all vegan, with a Japanese/western menu, and extremely busy! The only remaining seats when we arrived were out on the veranda, which turned out to be a pleasant place to sit and listen to the rain while eating.

Dr HH took a leaf out of my book and ordered the karaage donburi. Karaage is the juicy, tender deep fried chicken that I was already hooked on. Donburi apparently means that it comes with rice and salad (not pictured, you know what rice looks like). He was very pleased with it.

I was also very pleased with my dishes: deep fried oysters and French fries. Let’s first of all acknowledge that these are in no way French fries. That was a good thing though – in general we found the chips in Japan quite pale, and the wedges much better. These were no exception, and they were really beautifully seasoned with lots of herbs.

The deep fried oysters were in fact mushrooms in crispy batter, and they were insanely good. I’ve never had oysters so I cannot comment on how oyster-like they were, but as deep-fried mushrooms go, they were top notch! A good taste of the sea was created with the dill as well (though a little dill goes a long way, as far as I’m concerned).

With food this good, how could we resist dessert?! Dr HH ordered the baked cheesecake, and found it delightfully creamy but with an almost non-existent base. How devastating! Still, he said it was worth ordering because vegan baked cheesecake is quite the rarity in our experience.

I played it safe (again! Will I never learn?!) with the brownie. It was supremely chocolatey, but really not a brownie. You can see in the picture that it looks dry rather than gooey. At least it tasted great, and overall we had a real feast and a lovely experience.

As a downside, I must point out that they proudly announce on their menu that their food contains “no chemicals”…which is quite the claim. As a scientist, Dr HH is constantly infuriated by nonsense like this. I thought he was going to have a heart attack once when we saw lemon listed as alkaline in some hippy, wellness establishment. He held it together a bit better this time, thankfully.

Does bad science put you off eateries, or can you let it go? 

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VeganMoFo 2019: Le Sel Organic

Kyoto is definitely the place to go for good vegan ramen – we had two of the best of our holiday there, firstly at Engine Ramen and then here at Le Sel Organic. This place was quite an unexpected find. We were actually en route to another restaurant when Dr HH spotted a “vegan” sign in the window and we dashed in before my hanger could get the better of me!

This place does serve meat, but had one vegan set option. We had to order from a vending machine, but of course we couldn’t operate it ourselves! It was quite a fancy looking place, compared to most of our more casual holiday eateries, but it was also quite relaxed. I mean, how fancy can a place be if it has a vending machine?! There were only six seats, all set up facing the kitchen so you could watch the solo chef preparing your food. And what a feast he made!

If only we’d taken a close up of this little appetiser! It’s hard to get any real sense of it from this distance, but it was seared courgette, caramelised onion puree, and shaved walnuts. It was a flavour sensation!

Next up was this exciting concoction! We got three broccoli ravioli, which were topped with broccoli powder (who even knew that was a thing?!) and some fried, crispy triangles. The texture was great, and the broccoli flavour was really intense, which can only be a good thing in my book.

The next course was a bit more boring, as you can see. But before you dismiss it as just rice and veg, note that the rice was tea-infused (nice and subtle), and the pickled Japanese vegetables (the chef didn’t know the English name and we couldn’t place it) were amazing.

And here’s that ramen I was talking about! It was just magnificent. It was a really hearty bowl, with plenty of noodles and a relatively thick broth. The flavour was coming from the earthy broth and the delicious charred cabbage on top. It would almost be worth the cost of flying back to Japan just to have this again!

After all of that, we had high hopes for dessert. Alas, this was the only disappointment of the meal. There was a layer of caramel sauce at the bottom, topped with orange shaved ice. The sauce was lovely and sweet, but the orange was insanely bitter. I’m not sure if that’s a typical Japanese orange or if we got a bad one, but it was not pleasant at all, and there wasn’t enough sauce to balance it out.

We can allow them one misstep though, when everything else was so good! It was all wonderfully flavoured, beautifully presented, and dutifully explained in English!

What’s the word dessert you’ve been served? And did everyone know about broccoli powder besides me?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Premarch√© Gelateria, Kyoto

I often look back fondly on my summer holiday a couple of years ago when Dr HH and I toured the north of Italy and ate gelato every day of our two week trip. Every day! I was well-prepared for the fact that Japan wouldn’t match that (though there is apparently a lot of vegan soft serve around – somehow we kept missing it), so we were delighted when we found this one place in Kyoto with a tempting vegan menu.

There was a separate vegan menu, and cabinet – that’s what I like to see! There were some pretty wild flavours, but I played it safe with Belgian chocolate and rice milk. They complemented each other well. The chocolate was very rich and creamy, a real treat. The rice milk was a bit bland…I don’t really know what I was expecting though. I think I played it a bit too safe really.

Dr HH certainly did not! He ordered one scoop which was some kind of nuts and coffee flavour I’d never heard of before (he liked it a lot), and the other scoop was excitingly called ninja! This turned out to be black sesame flavoured. I saw a lot of black sesame ice cream when I was living in Hong Kong, but this was the first time I’d spotted a vegan variety. It was so delicious, easily the best of the bunch. Thank goodness that one of us is adventurous, anyway!

Would you order ninja ice cream?!


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VeganMoFo 2019: Veggie Cafe, Kyoto

One thing I observed in Japan was that they weren’t always particularly creative at naming things. Pretty much every Indian restaurant we saw was called “Everest” or “Kathmandu” (not sure if we can technically blame the Japanese for that one, I suppose…), and it seemed like a lot of the vegan places we went to had the word “veg” in the title. So it was with this place, Veggie Cafe.

It truly was a cafe, quite small and cosy, but it was also almost unbearably hot, with no fan or air con on. It was a one man show, so it’s probably just as well it was so small – if a few tables arrived at the same time, you might have a bit of a wait for your food as he prepared it all himself.

The menu was all western, which is what we were in the mood for on this day. Dr HH ordered the burger this time (usually it seems to be me who’s always ordering burgers!), and it was served in a pita. He chose the “hamburger” on the menu, and deduced that it was actually quite a beany patty (with tofu as well), but it got a bit lost in the accompaniments. All in all, it was nice but unspectacular. He loved the chips though – they were perfect little wedges!

And I got the lasagne, which appeared to be freshly made (or assembled, at least). The ragout was very good indeed, really herby. And as you can see, he didn’t skimp on herbs on the top either, it was very well-seasoned! The tofu cheese was nice and the crumbs on top added some nice texture. My only complaint was that in amongst the traditional vegetables for a lasagne were some Asian leafy greens that I personally didn’t think were a great addition. I’m probably too much of a traditionalist!

For dessert they had cinnamon rolls on the menu, but we managed to turn them down because we had our eyes on another prize just along the road. More on that tomorrow…

What’s the most unorthodox ingredient you’ve encountered in a vegan lasagne?

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