Sushi. Hibachi. Ramen. Vegan. Those four website-banner words describe Otani Japanese Restaurant, Cleveland’s first sushi bar. Though three of those terms often describe Japanese-American fare, the fourth — ”vegan” — is an addition. Veganism is gaining ground in both the United States and Japan, but its spread into traditional Japanese dishes remains limited.
This past February, Otani’s Facebook page highlighted a limited-time vegan shabu-shabu, which offered couples a hot-pot cooking experience. The vegan menu’s launch was a natural progression of the eatery’s four decades adapting to a changing culinary landscape as a multicultural endeavor. The original owner of Otani was among a crew of chefs from Japan who established the Samurai hibachi restaurant chain. He founded Otani in 1978 in the Golden Gate Plaza of Cleveland suburb Mayfield Heights, where the restaurant remains today. The Chinese-American Yee family became an investment partner in 1985, and Janet Yee has helmed the restaurant since 1999.
Jillian Lowry, the head of Otani’s vegan menu since its inception, began working intermittently at Otani in 2006 — the same year she transitioned to veganism. Northeast Ohio is a burgeoning vegetarian hotspot, but most of its few vegan specialty restaurants have limited hours. Missing sushi inspired Lowry to propose Otani’s vegan menu in early 2019 as a way to “lead the way for Asian vegan cuisine” in the area. With late-night hours and availability every day except Thanksgiving, Lowry saw an opportunity to transform Otani into “the only Japanese restaurant in Cleveland that offers vegan alternatives to sushi and hibachi.”
“The majority of sushi restaurants around the United States do have some vegan options,” Lowry said, “but it’s usually just an avocado roll and inari. And I found that so boring.” After testing recipes for plant alternatives to tuna, smoked salmon, scallops, and eel, Otani held its first vegan sushi night in February 2019 as a fundraiser for the farmed animal refuge Lasa Sanctuary. Otani began offering vegan sushi on Monday nights, and after one month, vegan choices became available every day.
Since then, Otani has added hibachi options and “kitchen” entrees to its vegan menu. Lowry said, “Being vegan at other hibachi restaurants is so difficult, so we wanted to tackle that and create a safe dining experience for vegans on our hibachi side.” The American conception of a “hibachi” grill — similar to a “teppan” griddle in Japan — is a mainstay at many Japanese-inspired restaurants in the United States. The vegan steak and chicken hibachi entree is one of the most popular items on Otani’s vegan menu, as well as one of my favorites.
Recently, I also enjoyed more of Otani’s trademark vegan sushi selections. Having sampled Otani’s vegan sushi at Cleveland Asian Festival and Cleveland VegFest, the unagi roll with barbecue eggplant “eel” and vegan moriawase sushi assortment delighted my tastebuds. The inari that came with the set offered a flavorful spin on the convenience-store inarizushi (sushi rice in tofu skins) that I often resorted to as a vegetarian in Japan.
Vegan items now comprise 15-20% of Otani’s sales. The restaurant has received “nothing but praise” from the local plant-based community, according to Lowry. Though many Japanese customers frequent Otani, guests represent diverse ethnicities, and the vegan menu ensures staff can satisfy omnivores and herbivores alike. Otani unites broad dietary cultures to become a triumph of modern Japanese-American fusion cuisine.
Jennifer Sherman worked as an assistant language teacher in rural Mie on the JET Program from 2012 to 2016. She writes and edits content for Anime News Network, and also localizes Japanese pop culture products such as manga and light novels.
This article is part of a guest-contributor partnership between the East-West Center in Washington and the United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) in which former JET participants contribute articles relating to their experiences in Japan.
The USJETAA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and cultural organization that promotes grassroots friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan through the personal and professional experiences of over 30,000 Americans who have participated on the JET Programme since its inception in 1987. USJETAA serves as a resource for individual JET alumni, JETAA chapters nationwide, and potential JET participants; supports the leadership of JETAA chapters with programming, membership recruitment, chapter management, leadership, professional development, and fundraising; and, supports the JET Program(me) and engages with the U.S.-Japan community.