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A dose of austerity

Lunch today with fellow gastronomist Greg (who, incidentally, had ideated a superhero for Burning Man named Hedon) at (the unfortunately named) Medicine Eat Station, in the FiDi. He’s been before, and enticed me by saying it was the closest thing he’s had in the city to the food he’d eaten in Japan. Noting that his girlfriend is from Osaka, and Medicine serves Kyoto-style cuisine, that seemed logical.

The space, really quite large, is on the second floor, adjacent to Crocker Galleria. Tremendous, long tables transect the huge, airy, light space; you sit bierhaus-style on benches that can comfortably accommodate two people, with ample room in between. I never noticed an instance of two people actually sitting side-by-side while we were there. The atmosphere is serene and austere, although it is somewhat noisy.

The philosophy of the cuisine is based on Zen Buddhist Shojin, a cuisine designed to improve health. The menu is entirely vegetarian, largely vegan even. Among the negative things I had heard about Medicine, repeatedly there were complaints of blandness. As a recovering vegetarian, I knew that this was probably the effete whinings of over-salted, meat-fed Americans. For food to be curative, blandness is in fact fairly necessary.

The menu is split basically into two groupings: Small plates and "foundation sets", which are full entrées that you can augment with sides. We split the maitake mushroom tempura and the mountain mushroom croquet with vegetable curry sauce. Greg had the Shojin soba foundation set, and I had the curry udon set; both came with house-pickled vegetables and a sizable hunk of artisanal tofu. We also each had a yuzu lemonade, which provided a pleasantly acidic punch in between bites.

First thing: It’s true, the food is bland. I can see why people would not take to it. You have to work a little harder to find the expression of flavor in each item, but it’s there. The block of tofu — quite substantial, really — is cool and firm, almost crumbly like feta cheese, and faintly sweet and strangely addictive. The pickled vegetables were by far the most flavor-packed things on the table, including mouth-awakening mustard greens. I wish there had been more of them.

I enjoyed the maitake tempura, the contrast of the crunch of the batter with the fleshy, feathery mushroom underneath a playful touch — just be sure to season them with the provided salt as they arrive hot, or they come off somewhat flat. Our croquet, beautifully ovoid and crispy-brown, sat in a perfect disk of curry. The prevailing flavor is earthy and nutty, but leaning almost to papery. If the flavor were more understated or flat-out off, I would have thought the oil was rancid; however it was too strong and too complex for that. Moreover, the tempura had none of that flavor. It was not unpleasant, just unexpected.

It was with the curry udon that the subtle expression of flavor was most apparent. The udon noodles themselves looked for all the world like any other, but instead of the same dense, chewy texture I have come to expect, they were light and almost spongy, ethereal. The curry was fragrant but so light on the palate as to be barely there. Food made of air. And yet it was both filling and satisfying, and despite the amount of carbs involved, I felt none of the heaviness or "lunch coma" you typically get afterwards.

We as Americans, and as San Franciscans in particular, are accustomed to flavor-filled, heavily seasoned food, and Medicine stands in stark contrast to all that. It’s a nice alternative, and one I will revisit periodically when I look to cleanse the palate, especially when my stomach is paying for my gustatory sins.

Medicine Eat Station

161 Sutter St

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