This review is an account, albeit brief, of the best vegetarian meal of my life so far. It was, quite simply, wonderful – way ahead of all the Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurants in Japan and Europe. And the pleasure started from very moment we approached the restaurant. (Note that this review is before the release of the first Beijing’s Michelin Guide.) Situated across from the iconic Lama Temple, its entrance was shrouded in a floating mist, and a heaven-like harp melody emanated from the centre of the dining room. It was, perhaps, a little surreal – but also in perfect accord with the excellent design, elaborate menu and beautiful ambience of the place where – it turned out – I was to experience one of the most outstanding meals (including non-vegetarian) I’ve ever had in China.
It’s certainly the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had, anywhere.
To be honest, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about vegetarian cuisine, as I’ve had the impression from most people that it’s rather bland. So I was surprised by the wide choice of tasting menus on offer. These ranged from 8 to 12 courses, and each course sounded very attractive indeed. . . sweetcorn, chestnut, seeds, beans, exotic mixes of herbs and spices, a huge variety of mushrooms, and more. It was rather different from what I’d expected, which was tofu, tofu, and more tofu. However, the basic cuisine was still Chinese, but with a slight influence from south-east Asia, showcasing a wide range of cooking techniques – seared, steamed, stir-fried, braised, and even slow-cooked. From the powerful flavours of Sichuan mushroom jerky, to the complex textures of Malay vegetable curry served with puff pastry, we all found ourselves nodded our heads at each other in silent appreciation of every single course in the menu. Not only had the chef used good ingredients with intense flavours, he had enhanced the food using his obviously excellent skills in marination and fermentation.
Beautiful ambience, delicious food, such a shame that it lacks service
If I had a complaint, it would have to be the poor training of the staff. Basically, it was non-existent. Mind you, this is quite usual in Beijing, even in high-end places. The main focus of waiting staff is simply to bring the food out from the kitchen and bring the empty plates back. As a result, the staff had little or no knowledge about the ingredients of the food, or the order of the dishes, so our tasting menu was all over the place – one of the amuse bouches finally showed up just before the dessert, while a cold appetiser was served together with the main course! When we pointed out to the senior waitress that they really needed to pay more attention to the sequence of the dishes, her reply was: “All the dishes eventually arrived – isn’t that what’s important?” She wasn’t in the least rude, just genuinely unaware of how a tasting menu is supposed to work.
Still, we all agreed that, in the context of such fantastic food, our frustration with the service team was a small issue. We would certainly come back again whenever we’re in Beijing, as it’s hard to imagine there being anywhere else in the world that could produce such a delicious meal without any use of meat!