Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on October 2008

Photos courtesy of Nuun

Photos courtesy of Nuun

Picture in your mind what a self-styled “vegetable restaurant” might look like. Got it? Now completely forget it. Nuun has no prayer flags, no posters on the wall, no dreadlocked staff. Instead, this design-heavy Higashi-Azabu eatery sports an LED-inspired logo, a futuristic storefront, hip Christmas-colored walls and a tubular upstairs dining space where the wall crests over you like a lime-green wave. Nuun would be a strong contender for the sleekest vegetarian restaurant in the world, if only its food was actually meat-free—but more on that later.

Nuun’s menu is as impressive and experimental as the decor. Vegetables are featured prominently in every dish, from the “lettuce steak with garlic dressing” appetizer to the “seitan with shabu-shabu sauce” entrée. Wanting to try anything the chef could throw our way, we ordered both the ¥2,980 (seven dishes) and ¥3,980 (eight dishes) dinner courses, intending to share between the two of us.

From the wine list we selected a bottle of Don Ramon (¥3,500); the menu promised a 2004 and the bottle said 2006, but the oak-aged Spanish red was still nice for the price, with a fruity nose and a tiny bite.

Both courses began with the “steak,” a half-head of iceberg lettuce sprinkled with Parmesan, peanuts and coarse black pepper, then drizzled with a soy and garlic dressing. The taste was reminiscent of a well-made Caesar salad, and despite the dish’s name, it bore no resemblance to meat. A promising start.

The second courses were nameko and hakuo-dake mushrooms sautéed with yuzu-kosho, and fruit tomatoes with hot habañero salsa and topped with edible shiso flowers. Continuing on this culinary road-less-traveled, we were delighted by the third course as well: two hors d’oeuvre-type stacks of spicy tomato puree, asparagus tempura and marinated eggplant, skewered and resting on a bed of wheat bread.

At this point our expectations of vegetarian cooking lay in ruins, shattered by a convergence of creativity, presentation and flavor. Here we were in a fish-loving country, paying bottom dollar for incredibly inventive veggie fare. Or so we thought.

Photos courtesy of Nuun

Photos courtesy of Nuun

It turns out that although Nuun’s menu was created with the “vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, raw food, fruitarian and shojin ryori” culinary traditions in mind, the kitchen still uses a dash of dashi here and an ounce of oyster sauce there. Why the kitchen doesn’t just cut out fish and animal products entirely is unclear, but if you are of any of the above persuasions, be sure to mention your dietary preferences and restrictions when you order—or, ideally, when you make a reservation.

Our expressly vegetarian meal continued with yuba in a spicy chili-garlic marinade, and seitan (mock meat made from wheat gluten) served with a tasty shabu-shabu dipping sauce. The final dish was a less-inspired curry pad thai that was spicy but otherwise lacking in flavor—a disappointing end to an overall stellar three-hour dining experience.