There are those of us in the human community who love to eat okra. Others, perhaps many, many others, not so much. Unforgiving eaters slander the vegetable with a single, damning adjective—slimy. But that condemnation shouldn’t lie with the green slender stalks of okra in and of themselves. It’s the preparation that can lead to problematic results. I fell in love with okra in its Indian incarnation, a.k.a. bhindi, mercilessly sautéed and spiced way up. Later, I came across crunchy, deep-fried versions coated in savory Southern breading.
But the single spear I tasted at Tane Vegan in Berkeley was a revelation. In the okra competition at the edible Olympics, Japan just edged India off its gold pedestal. The chef, Lawson Huang, distilled okra down to its primal, okra-y essence. Served under the nigiri course, a blackened band of seaweed, like a tight leather bracelet, bound the okra to a perfectly formed quenelle of white rice. We also ordered the tomato nigiri, but more on that in a minute.
Each dish included two servings. I shared the plate with a friend who texted me the next day, “I’m still thinking about that tomato and okra.” Chef Huang explained the technique he applied to both. “We grill the okra with our homemade garlic oil. Then we use a pan to torch it, to bring out a smoky flavor.” The process sounds simple, but Huang, an experienced sushi chef, said that preparing vegetables actually takes up more time than fish. He said he arrives at Tane Vegan around noon, getting the sauces and vegetables ready at least four hours before opening the doors for diners.
Tane Vegan is part of a restaurant group with satellites in San Francisco and Honolulu. Chef Huang said that he follows 95% of the existing menu plans. The other 5% depends on what produce is nearby and available. The group’s head chef, Kin Lui, invented the tomato dish, but Huang provided a general outline for turning a Roma tomato into a trompe l’oeil piece of tuna. Burnished and buffed to a matte gloss finish, the peeled tomato is hollowed out to make it “nigiri-sized.” The kitchen staff marinates it in a “secret sauce” that contains orange juice, soy sauce, water and sugar. After an hour, they drain the sauce out. “We try to make the vegetable close in flavor to fish,” Huang said.
The menu includes Japanese restaurant staples such as ramen and vegan takes on classic sushi rolls. I suggest skipping the familiar plates in favor of the extensive list of specialty rolls and shared plates. If I had the appetite of Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, I would have tried them all. But after scanning the dozen or so combinations, we settled on the Kailua and the Manila Dune.
The Kailua roll’s Hawaiian nomenclature must come from the tangy addition of pickled mango. I loved the asparagus crunch as it paired with marinated shiitake and ginger shoyu tomato. The presentation was suggestive of a Cubist sculpture. Geometric shapes were patched together in vegetable shades of tomato red, asparagus green and mango yellow.
A renkon, or lotus chip, was embedded in the Manila Dune’s crown. It was the roll’s crisped component, made to play against the shredded tofu and pumpkin tempura. A blast of chili sauce also tempered a light avocado crema.
Each roll is so full of flavor that it makes you consider the idea of renouncing meat once and for all. Only Cha-Ya, another Bay Area vegetarian restaurant, has made me feel the same way. When the rolls arrive, they look crowded, busy with seven to 10 different ingredients. I won’t suggest that, as I took a bite, I could distinguish each and every single one. But the overall effect was an exciting balance of tastes and textures. Every bite tasted like something new.
I did start the meal with a small bowl of miso soup, but two nigiri and two rolls were filling enough for both of us. With a soft opening on March 16, Tane Vegan has yet to add dessert, but our server said it was in the works.