Many Japanese people have told me that vegetables are very important in Japanese cuisine, and that they use more than other countries do. However, this isn't often reflected in restaurants, particularly the fast food ones, which charge a few dollars for a tiny side salad. So it feels like you've found authenticity when you can get vegetables with your food without burning a hole in your pocket.
Nanaya is a modest-sized chain based in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures. Nanaya aims to provide “friendly, warm, healthy meals” like a mother would make. There are 4 stores in Sendai. As you walk into the Ichibancho location, right in front of you is a board displaying where they sourced that day's ingredients. The decor is warm and faux-natural, with wood-effect tables.
The day is split into three times – lunch (11:00 until 15:00), tea time (15:00 until 17:30) and dinner (17:30 until 22:00). At lunch and dinner time, there's an unlimited salad bar which is included with most of the main meals, or you can have it separately for ¥598 without tax. At tea time the salad bar isn't available, but your meal comes with a salad, unlimited drink bar and a choice of dessert. All meals (including the salad bar) come with rice and miso soup.
All of the mains contain meat or fish, so vegetarians will want to stick to the salad bar. There's various types of fish, karaage (fried chicken) and katsu (meat fried in breadcrumbs), as well as seasonal meals. The summer menu is stamina don (a rice bowl with raw tuna) and chicken salad with salsa. Nanaya also offers bento (ready-made lunch), but it's not available at the Ichibancho location.
Not all of the items in the salad bar are vegetarian-friendly, but most are. You can serve yourself a green salad with croutons and a choice of three dressings. There's eggplant, konnyaku (devil's root jelly, a popular diet food in Japan), potato salad, sweet potato salad and mildly pickled cabbage (there is some chicken, but it is easily avoided if you need to). The seasonal salad was a pasta salad in tomato sauce with tuna. The pasta sauce was addictive, with a slight hint of worcester sauce. My other favorite was the potato salad, which had decent chunks of potato, an unusual sight in Japan where potato salad is almost smooth. It was very easy to eat far too much salad, but it did make ordering just the salad bar very cost-effective.
When I went at tea time I chose the black vinegar, sweet and sour-style meal. The salad arrived first, which surprised me slightly since I expected it to come with the meal. It was the size of a typical side salad, and definitely better eaten with the rest of the meal than alone. When the main meal arrived, I was pleased with the amount, but I wasn't expecting the chicken to be karaage (usually fried). It seemed to go against the aim of providing healthy meals, but I can see how it would speed up service. The drink bar was machine-based, with a selection limited to what the Coca-Cola company sells plus jugs of orange juice and iced tea or coffee.
At first my meal tasted a bit lacklustre compared to other meals I'd had, but I realised that it also tasted less artificial. The more subdued flavors came with a delightful freshness that you can't find in bigger chain restaurants like Ootoya.
Once you've finished your main you can press a button to call a waitress to ask for dessert. My choice, the chocolate cake, was moister than it first appeared, but the ice-cream was still very welcome. There was more cake than ice-cream, and the ice-cream only had a weak vanilla flavor. It had a slight icy crust, too. Overall, quite average.
At Nanaya, the price is reasonable and the food tastes good (the salads, great). I left full. In future I'll avoid tea time though, because the salad bar is far more satisfying than the dessert!
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