Ruby Jiang never envisioned she would one day own a vegan restaurant. Not long ago, the idea of giving up meat was unimaginable to her.
“The first time I heard the word ‘vegan,’ I asked, ‘What is it?’ ” she recalls. When her chef brother-in-law, Feng Jiang, explained that it’s a way of eating that avoids all animal products, she was skeptical. “I told him, ‘I cannot do it,’ ” she says with a laugh. But over time, his delicious adaptations of Asian dishes (many developed at a New York vegan eatery where he worked) won her over. Now, years later, they are in business together, along with her husband, Steven. In August, they opened Bayberry Cafe, a vegan Asian-fusion spot in Woburn Center.
The Jiangs know that Boston-area vegans are a discriminating bunch. These customers are not content to merely avoid meat. They want to discover tempting, colorful fare. These restaurateurs are eager to deliver.
Hijiki salad with edamame ($5) is striking in its presentation. A glossy tangle of the black sea vegetable is centered in the plate, dotted with whole steamed soybeans, and dressed in a sweet soy marinade. Surrounding it are baby spinach leaves, fanned like flower petals. The dish is crowned with a spiralized thread of beet and sliced radish. Even miso soup, which accompanies most main dishes, is appealing to the eye. Wakame seaweed and cooked-just-right shiitake mushrooms float in a steaming bowl.
Julienned jicama takes the place of rice vermicelli in fresh summer rolls ($4 for two). The root vegetable lends juicy-crisp crunch to the slender bundles, which also include carrot, spinach, and pressed tofu. Served with hoisin dipping sauce and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, the appetizer allows diners to save their carb calories for kimchi fried rice ($10), kicky with heat from fermented Napa cabbage folded into the tender grains.
Shredded cabbage in moo shu vegetables ($12) is first salted to remove moisture, resulting in toothsome squeakiness. It’s stir-fried with pressed tofu, carrot, and wood ear mushrooms. Confusingly, the wrappers resemble flour tortillas. Where are the tender pancakes that made this dish an American-Chinese favorite? The well-made filling deserves a tastier wrap.
Red curry seitan ($13) is excellent. Each vegetable — including baby okra, eggplant, red pepper, and zucchini — is snappy in texture, with a vivid hue. Seitan, a wheat gluten meat substitute, provides a spongy medium to soak up the mild red curry, served with white or brown rice. That protein substitute is more appealing than the “veggie beef” (an oddly sweet faux meat spiced with clove and cinnamon) that appears in several noodle and rice dishes.
The unfortunately named “Jap-Chap” (a play on “japchae,” Korean stir-fried noodles) is a delicious dish despite the awkward moniker. Springy, clear pasta made from sweet potato starch is tossed with bean sprouts, sweet onion, and cabbage. Agave nectar sweetens the mostly savory sauce, right up the alley of strict vegans who eschew honey.
Non-vegans might miss traditional flavors in some of the dishes. Tom yum soup ($4), mushrooms and cilantro in a coconut and chile-enriched broth, lacks umami without shellfish stock or shrimp. Similarly, the chile-lime marinade in a green papaya salad ($6) lacks pungency that would normally come from Asian fish sauce. You get the sense that this young restaurant is still fine-tuning some of the recipes.
When you step inside the serene, updated space, you would never recognize it as the former wings-and-seafood joint Eri’s. On a weekday, patrons — ranging from seniors in velour sweat suits to tattooed aestheticians from a nearby day spa — are tucking into generously portioned platters. Everyone seems happy that a vegan eatery figured into Ruby Jiang’s revised life plan.
502 Main St., Woburn Center, 781-935-1288, www.bayberrycafe.com
All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $3-$7. Soup and salad $3-$8. Noodles and rice $7-$12. Entrees $12-$15. Juices and dessert $4-$5.50.
Hours Tue-Thu 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun noon-9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
What to order Hijiki salad, fresh summer rolls, kimchi fried rice, red curry seitan, stir-fried sweet potato noodles.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.