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Dining Out

Have your vegetables and your cake, too

June 29, 2008

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Masao's Kitchen
581 Moody St., Waltham
781-647-7977
masaoskitchen.com
Hours: Monday through Saturday, noon-7:30 p.m., closed on Sunday
No reservations
No table service
Accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards accepted

Masao's Kitchen proves that even a meat lover can truly enjoy a vegetarian meal. The storefront restaurant on Moody Street in Waltham has gained a cult-like following, and after spending time there, I understand why.

Nearly all the food is organic, with no preservatives or additives, dairy products, or eggs (which also makes it vegan). Quality stainless-steel pots and pans are used for cooking, and anodized woks for sautéeing. There are no plastic soft drink bottles for sale; a large metal carafe with filtered water is offered to customers.

Food is sold by weight, at $8 a pound, and presented buffet-style, with a "hot table" near the far right wall and a salad bar on the left. On any given day, diners will find many of the same staple foods, such as fresh steamed kale and broccoli, brown rice, and a variety of beans and grains.

Masao's also provides a variety of proteins, with the offerings depending on the day of the week and the time. On Mondays and Thursdays, it's tempeh, a soybean product that's high in fiber and vitamins and has a firm texture; on Wednesdays and Saturdays, tofu, also made from soybeans; and Tuesdays and Fridays are split, with tofu served between noon and 4:30 p.m., and seitan, which is made from wheat gluten and sometimes referred to as wheat meat, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

With my visit falling on a Friday, I found warm barbecued tofu. The flavor was rich and smooth with just the right sour zing. My husband, who could probably eat a rack of ribs every night, was especially impressed with the firm, lightly fried exterior. I mixed my portion with some slightly sticky brown rice.

Beans also vary depending on the day of the week. We were offered kidney bean stew, made with celery, carrots, onions, salt, and rice syrup. It was fantastic. Another favorite was a curry dish that included cauliflower, green beans, carrots, and potatoes; it was especially tasty when mixed with the brown rice with its hint of curry. There was also arame, a species of kelp used in Japanese cuisine, which is high in calcium and iron, and also harvested for iodine and alginate, a natural food thickener.

The featured stand-alone vegetable was steamed broccoli - not too crunchy, not too soft. The sweetness of the fresh and organic florets allowed them to stand on their own, but for customers wanting a little more zest, Masao's has a number of natural condiments, including organic plum vinegar, sunflower seeds, and kombu, made from black seaweed from Japan. At Masao's, a mix of kombu powder and toasted sesame seeds adds a nutty, slightly salty flavor. There's also dulse, red seaweed high in vitamin B.

Owner Masao Miyaji, 65, has been cooking up his vegan macrobiotic food for over 15 years, and prepares all the food. He started in Cambridge, where he had a place in the Porter Exchange building for seven years, and has been in his present Waltham location for the past eight.

He came to Massachusetts in 1986 from Yokohama, Japan, to study macrobiotics at the world-renowned Kushi Institute in Becket.

The term macrobiotics was created in the late 1950s for a natural way of living, stemming from the Greek word macro, meaning large, and bios, which means life.

"Health and happiness are the result of living in harmony with nature," said Masao, quoting the institute's founder, longtime Brookline resident Michio Kushi. "It is a holistic view of life."

Some traditional and basic macrobiotic practices including eating whole grains and cereals, beans, vegetables, seaweed, fermented soy products, and fruit. Practices also include eating regularly and less in quantity, chewing more, and maintaining an active and positive life and mental outlook.

For those who have a short lunch hour and prefer takeout, containers are available for by-the-pound purchases, as well as sandwiches and nori rolls ($6.50). There's barbecue tofu or seitan on ciabatta, an Italian bread made with wheat flour; seitan "steak" on ciabatta served with romaine lettuce, red onion, mustard, and tofu mayonnaise; and macro rolls, with tofu, carrots, greens, and pickled ginger ($7). They can also be ordered on a nori roll, the flat, dried seaweed used to roll sushi.

Not to be missed is the whole-wheat noodles in shitake broth ($13). It's served with Napa cabbage, tofu, scallions, onions, and carrot tempura, which is so lightly fried it melts in your mouth. There are also pan-fried whole-wheat noodles and pan-fried brown rice (both $13), served with barbecue tofu, onion, carrots, greens, and ginger.

The 600-square-foot bistro seats 20 and tables can be arranged to accommodate larger parties. The décor is, well, bizarrely eclectic. Framed paintings hang on the walls, along with a few racks for information about macrobiotic food, organic land care, and my favorite, a free DVD called "Meet Your Meat," produced by Action for Animals.

We ended our meal with three wonderful desserts: a piece of blueberry cake ($2.50), apple strudel ($3.75), and vanilla cake with chocolate frosting ($2.50). The blueberry cake was super-moist and made with ingredients including unbleached wheat flour, brown rice syrup, soy milk, fresh blueberries, and maple syrup; the apple strudel was loaded with soft sweet apples and a touch of cinnamon; and the vanilla cake had a slightly bitter unsweetened chocolate frosting that complemented the fluffy cake.

If it's possible to feel absolved of guilt after eating dessert, we certainly did.

SUSAN CHAITYN LEBOVITS