Chef/innovator Junya Watanabe has spent the past year developing recipes for The Yasai, opening Friday on Convoy Street
Chef and restaurateur Junya Watanabe admits to having a restless spirit. He’s constantly changing the noodle recipes at his four Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen restaurants in San Diego in a never-ending quest to stay on the cutting edge of Asian cuisine.
And what’s next on the horizon, Watanabe believes, is vegan Japanese food. So, to get ahead of the pack, Watanabe will open The Yasai — billed as San Diego’s first Japanese vegan restaurant — this weekend on Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa’s Asian dining district.
The Yasai — the Japanese word for vegetables — will serve an entirely plant-based menu of sushi rolls and nigiri, ramen, globally inspired appetizers, tempura dishes, sliders, snacks and salads. The sit-down, 50-seat restaurant is aiming for a soft opening on Friday.
The Yasai takes over the streetside space next to the original Rakiraki shop on Convoy. It was formerly occupied by Pokirrito, a poke bowl/burrito restaurant Watanabe opened in early 2016 when the poke bowl craze was just beginning to take off.
“We were the pioneers of poke when we opened, but it was too easy to copy what we did. We had people coming in every day taking videos with their phone. There’s so much competition on Convoy so we need to do something nobody else is doing,” he said.
Although traditional Japanese cuisine is built around the bounty of the sea, vegetable dishes — or “shoji” — have always been a big part of the Japanese diet, particularly the nation’s vegetarian Buddhist monks. But Watanabe said the full vegan experience is something that is just now cracking the surface in Japan.
He discovered the cuisine on a series of visits to restaurants around the world in 2018. The first was a visit to the Michelin-starred Septime in Paris, where chef Bertrand Grébaut was experimenting with fermented vegetables. Next, he dined at a vegetarian sushi restaurant in Tokyo where the sushi master created stunning nigiri with vegetable “filets.” And finally last fall, he visited Shizen, a vegan sushi bar in San Francisco, where he was so inspired by the experience he decided to create his own concept, The Yasai, which he calls a “vegan Japanese experience.”
“A plant-based Japanese menu is a culinary challenge,” said Watanabe, “but it’s a challenge that has fused my passion for food with my creative ambitions, and resulted in an elevated flavor palate that redefines what it means to be vegan.”
Watanabe is a master chef who has spent years training under three of Japan’s leading ramen chefs. But he’s also passionate about design and holds a master’s degree in economics from UCLA. Watanabe said he enjoys the learning process of discovering a new ramen noodle or new vegan cooking technique as much as he enjoys serving it. Although he’s not a vegan or vegetarian himself, Watanabe said he feels healthier whenever he eats a primarily plant-based diet.
“I really respect a restaurant that commits itself to vegan cuisine. You have to believe in it. A lot of places have vegan options on their menu and they fail. They need to take it seriously,” he said.
Watanabe first started experimenting with vegetable fermentation, using alkaline water, sea salt and Japanese vinegar to change the consistency, texture and flavors of the vegetables. Then about eight months ago he started developing recipes, first with a chef friend in Los Angeles, and later when he hired sushi chef Eduardo Fierro, formerly of NoW Sushi in Mission Beach, to finalize the menu at The Yasai.
Fierro and Watanabe said that simply placing a strip of raw vegetable over a handful of sushi rice doesn’t work. To create proper sushi or nigiri, the vegetables need to have a fleshy, flexible texture like raw fish, which requires days of preparation. And because each vegetable has unique characteristics, each one must be prepared with a different fermenting and cooking process. Although the two chefs declined to describe their process, they say it involves a mix of fermenting, boiling, frying, torching and grilling techniques.
Among the specialties of the house at The Yasai are the ramen bowls, with options of classic, kale, beet or gluten-free noodles, choice of vegan shoy or miso broth, and toppings of bamboo shoots, wakame seaweed, grilled tofu cutlets, fried kabocha squash, bean sprouts, green onions and garlic chips.
The nigiri sushi plate features sushi rice topped with fermented, cooked and torched “filets” of trumpet mushroom, Roma tomato, red bell pepper and eggplant. The sushi rolls are made with Impossible meat and vegan imitation crab and shrimp. And the karaage appetizer is made with a crispy battered curried soy “cutlet” with the same flavor and texture of chicken. There’s also a starter plate called crispy gobo, which are onion string-like fried shavings of burdock root sprinkled with nori dust and truffle zest.
Although the food uses Japanese techniques and ingredients, Fierro is adding a global twist to the menu, with a tostada appetizer made with homemade tortilla chips, vegan shrimp ceviche, seaweed dust and a chimichurri mayo sauce made with red miso, red chili and Japanese pepper.
Prices range from $3 to $10 for appetizers, $6 to $8 for 6-piece classic sushi rolls, and specialty rolls and ramen dishes for $15 or less.
The Yasai, which has a sleek, Japanese-inspired interior with a glass-walled kitchen. That choice was made, Watanabe said, so diners can watch their food being made. This helps them better appreciate the work that goes into preparing their food and eliminates some of the mystery of vegan cooking.
The biggest challenge, Fierro said, is getting diners to try the food just once. Then, he’s confident, they will be hooked.
“When we get meat eaters in here I will tell them vegan is not just about salad. I’ll ask ‘How do you season your meat and fish?’ With plants and herbs. I want to make food people want to eat, vegan or not,” Fierro said.
Watanabe is so confident about his new concept, he’s not just opening The Yasai on Convoy. He’s also planning to remodel his Rakiraki location in Little Italy to house three dining concepts — a Rakiraki ramen room with an abbreviated vegan menu, a The Yasai vegan sit-down restaurant, and an omakase-style The Yasai vegan sushi bar. It’s scheduled to open in January.
“A common misconception is that to be vegan means to not have delicious food,” says Watanabe, “but I’m confident that a taste of anything on The Yasai’s menu will prove otherwise, even to those devoutly committed to this notion.”
A soft opening is planned from Friday through Wednesday with a grand opening on Nov. 21.
Hours: Opens Friday. 11 am. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 5 to 11 p.m. (dinner)
Address: 4646 Convoy St., Suite 101-A, San Diego