Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706

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World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

A Fresh Approach to Fast Casual

Chain restaurants have come to represent the slow erosion of all that is held dear by discerning diners the world over. Homogenized, mass-produced, oversimplified menus designed for consistency and volume proliferate, muting bold flavors in favor of simplicity. Quality isn’t the first, nor second or third, consideration, with more focus placed on cost than true value. Small businesses are edged out, putting the endangered mom and pop shop around the corner at even greater risk than ever.

Surely you’ve heard this tale of woe before. It’s not a new story, and no happy ending seems to lie ahead in the yet unwritten pages. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Franchise” doesn’t have to be a dirty word when it represents the spread of better corporate values. Veggie Grill is bucking the trend as the largest 100% vegan chain in the country, bringing real food that “celebrates the veggie, the fruit, the grain, and the nut” to the people. Veggie Grill has over 30 locations spread across the west coast and is soon to begin their east coast invasion, taking root in Cambridge, MA before spreading to NYC in 2019. If you haven’t yet heard about their infamous B-Wing Salad or sat down to a towering Beyond Burger, you’re in for a treat.

My first taste of Veggie Grill was many years ago when it was still a fledgling eatery based in Portland, OR. Although I’ve dabbled with the bay area locations once a year or so, they still remained just a bit beyond easy access… Until now. Planting themselves right in the heart of downtown Berkeley, it’s dangerously easy to pop in whenever the craving for Tempura Green Beans strikes, or worse yet, simply order $1 delivery through the app.

Meatless mains feature prominently through partnerships with Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hodo, appealing to the staunch omnivore and old-school vegan alike. Many reviews come from confused patrons who realize only after plowing through their entree that it was entirely plant-based. This is exactly the kind of accessibility that the industry needs now; not dumbed-down flavors, but a level playing field to unite eaters of all stripes. You can still get your spicy Buffalo Wings with creamy ranch dressing; your soulful Southern Fried Chicken plate piled high with mashed potatoes and gravy; your bright and zesty Mediterranean Super greens Salad, if you so choose.

My personal favorite of the moment is the Rustic Farm Bowl for its deeply umami grilled mushrooms, roasted yams, braised white beans, broccoli pesto, roasted tomatoes, and red pepper sauce. Every element would be a fine bite by itself, but in concert, creates a symphony of carefully tuned tastes, in perfect proportion. It’s a grounding meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied, energized rather than weighed down, easy to grab and just keep going. That’s what fast casual dining should really be about, right? Fuss-free, wholly satisfying fare that fits into the existing social fabric, rather than tearing a hole through it. If you haven’t yet tried Veggie Grill, prepare yourself. You may just see one opening up near you soon.

Don’t forget to download the app before you go and use my code HannahKa8145 for $5 off when you sign up!

Hospitality in the Green Mountain State

Embarking upon my wild adventure to the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s, it was a given that there were be numerous sweet samples to entertain my taste buds over the following days, but I could have never anticipated the delights that awaited me beyond the industrial freezer case.

My first taste of Vermont came in liquid form, with a tall, bubbly Maple-Sage Tonic, furnished by Juniper Bar & Restaurant and savored in front of the roaring fireplace at the Hotel Vermont. The partnership between these two establishments proved to be a seamless marriage of efficiency and harmony time and again throughout my short stay.

Perusing the typical menu online, there were clearly one or two default meatless options on offer, but nothing to indicate the level of culinary finesse we were soon to encounter. Developed specifically for the Ben & Jerry’s blogger gathering, the chef went above and beyond the call of duty. Greeting us with a lavish welcoming dinner served up family-style, it was dangerously tempting to spoon out a second or third generous helping of every dish.

Ideal for the plummeting winter temperatures outside, the coconut stewed tofu with kaffir lime and peanuts was a top pick, rich and hearty, yet crafted with incredible artistry. The bright citrus notes shone through the coconut broth, infusing each tender cube of tofu thoroughly. Though the seitan cassoulet with cattle beans and celeriac won’t win any beauty contests, it was probably my favorite course of the evening. Bearing incredible depth in each creamy, comforting bite, it was a study in umami that I couldn’t get enough of. It’s exactly the kind of elevated home cooking that I crave after a long, trying day of travel.

I can’t go without mentioning the show-stopping dessert. Despite being absolutely stuffed on savories, I shamelessly devoured every last crumb of the tender chocolate layer cake. Smothered with a rich coat of ganache, nearly solid enough to qualify as a solid bar of chocolate by itself, the flaky sea salt and chopped pistachios on top truly did gild the lily… But I wouldn’t complain about their inclusion, to say the least.

By the end of the trip, I wanted to set up permanent residence in that plush queen-size bed. It wouldn’t have been difficult either, considering the positively luxurious room service menu offered specifically for all of us alternative eaters staying the night. Never before have I experienced the true decadence of a chef-prepared morning meal delivered right to my bed, and let me tell you that even against the impossibly idealized picture painted in so many movies, the real life experience exceeded all expectations. There’s something unspeakably luxurious about having someone else make even a humble bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and maple syrup for you, no matter how uncomplicated the task may be. Even now, looking back on all the incredible bites I enjoyed throughout this crazy adventure, it’s those quiet moments wrapped up in the soft bed sheets with a cup of hot coffee by my side that I genuinely crave the most.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to highlight an establishment that doesn’t readily advertise their prowess in vegan cooking, but these offerings were each so outstanding that it’s absolutely worth the extra effort of making a special request. If you’re booking a room with Hotel Vermont or making dinner reservations at Juniper, let either of these fine establishments know in advance, and you can rest assured that you’ll be well taken care of.

This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

A Better Bistro

“Elevated cuisine” is not the bill of fare one might expect to come out of a shoe-box of a food trailer parked in the outskirts of east Austin, and yet Bistro Vonish seems determined to defy such preconceived notions. Redefining the category of fine dining through the lens of a classically trained vegan chef, Craig Vanis isn’t your ordinary line cook either. Propelled by a basic desire to feed others and express his creativity, his true inspirations are diverse, interwoven into the tangle of modern food politics and nutrition. “Food touches everyone, more than just micro nutrients,” he explained to me over a plate of three sisters ragu, a vibrant melange of summer vegetables crowning crispy seared polenta cakes. Clearly, none of this philosophy clouds the flavors in world-class dishes like this one, presented with equal flare on the ever-changing menu.

In sharp contrast to his current surroundings, Chef Craig first found himself in Texas to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer in the oil fields. Laid off after the 2009 economy collapse, that marked a turning point that began in Houston kitchens and ultimately led him back for professional training at the Natural Epicurean School in Austin. This complex path is perhaps what gives the food at Bistro Vonish such a clear and unique voice; there’s no one else with the same formative experiences, and certainly none quite so fervently determined to pursue their passions in the food industry.

Showcasing more than just impeccable cooking skills, the local, organic, seasonal produce dictates the daily offerings. Weekend brunches are a distinct treat, featuring pillowy french toast with homemade fruit syrups, and savory tofu scrambles that would put a plate of eggs to shame.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg, and only the start of greater aspirations for Bistro Vonish. Chef Craig plans to expand into a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant as soon as possible, enlivened with tempting menus that echo the successes of supper clubs past. While it will be difficult to wait for this upcoming new chapter in the Bistro Vonish saga, Chef Craig was generous enough to share his recipe for Grapefruit Panna Cotta; a sweet finale to tide us over until the next meal.


Photo by Craig Vanis

Grapefruit Panna Cotta
by Chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish

1 (13.5-Ounce) Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 1/2 Teaspoons Agar Powder
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
Zest of 1/2 Grapefruit
1/2 Cup Grapefruit Juice
1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
6 Ounces Silken Tofu
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Simmer the coconut milk with the agar powder and sugar for approximately 10 – 15 minutes, to thoroughly cook and dissolve the agar. Blend the simmered liquid with the rest of the ingredients until creamy and smooth. Pour into lightly greased molds or ramekins to set; at least three hours or until firm. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Gently remove from molds and serve with the accompaniments of your choice. Suggestions include candied and fried sage, orange liqueur syrup, and tuile cookies.

Printable Recipe

Gather Together

Gather is much more than a place to eat, more carefully sourced, passionately created, and openly hospitable than the average eatery. Explicitly conceived as a means for connecting farmers, cooks, and diners with every bite, local and organic ingredients aren’t mere buzz words tossed around these vaulted ceilings, but honest mantras held in the highest regard. A certified LEED Platinum building in downtown Berkeley provides the foundation for this mission without missing a beat.

Guests are invited to take a look into the open kitchen and watch the chefs in action, meticulously crafting dishes at a steady but brisk pace. The great outdoors are welcomed inside, with a comfortable sundeck seamlessly connecting the two spaces, while large-pane windows allow daylight to readily flow throughout. Even the menu itself exhibits this very same openness, boasting plates for every imaginable dietary constraint all in the same breath. Most impressively, the inherent depth of flavor found in food itself doesn’t suffer one bit for all these extraneous considerations. Impeccably fresh produce sings on stark white plates, imploring eaters to join the song, whether they’re vegan, gluten-free, omnivorous, or just plain hungry.