some friends came down from b’more for lunch this afternoon, and since Bruce is a vegetarian, Chris recommended a vegetarian specialty chinese place down the pike i’d never heard of. we piled in the car out of the frosty air (omg, winter has come early and hard this year!) and headed off to easily the best vegetarian meal i’ve ever had.
a note on food philosophy: fake food drives me nuts. substituting one ingredient for another without changing to overall point of a recipe rarely works out, since there was a reason for having that particular item be the prefered one. my buddy with the wheat & dairy allergies ends up a lot happier when food is ordinarily prepared without those ingredients, rather than worrying that someone slipped up and prepared them in the usual way. likewise, if you’re not going to eat animal flesh, why on earth would you still want your food to look and taste like animal flesh? rice flour doesn’t make good¹ pancakes, it just reminds you that you can’t eat wheat pancakes; chicken-shaped and -flavored tofu doesn’t actually make good¹ stir fry, it just reminds you that you’re avoiding actual chicken. rice flour does, however, make awesome spring rolls, and tofu does make awesome miso soup. when you use those ingredients as the preferred item instead of the also-ran substitute wonderful cooking is possible. this is the issue i have with most restaurants or grocery store products that bill themselves as vegetarian or vegan or wheat- or dairy-free: such attempts are more often about the “i can’t believe it’s not butter” fakery rather than what’s possible when you stop considering these items as second-choice.
which brings us to today’s lunchtime outing to the vegetable garden. it’s billing itself as vegetarian chinese², but i’d say it’s more pan-asian, or even pacific rim fusion. the menu was lavishly photographed (the takeout menu is the standard single page folded in half list of items, but the sit-down menu is a large booklet with on average only 12 items per page due to nearly every item having its own picture), and amazingly enough, was not populated with stock photos. the unusual blue-grey square plates with tipped-up corners in the photos were the same ones that appeared later bearing our meals. even more amazingly, the lavish photos were the same way that the food was presented. Bruce’s bean nest had a palm-shaped fan of crispy rice flour pastry (think half of a taco salad shell) spilling forth a tidal wave of multicolored beans; my lo hen cantaloupe (steamed cantaloupe, jicama, butternut squash, mushrooms, cranberries, and pecans & cashews in a very mild creamy coconut milk curry) was served piled in and around an expertly carved half-cantaloupe. this food was beautiful. it was also beautifully tasty. while there were a few items of faux-prawns or faux-duck, they were not the majority of the menu; imho, that’s why it was all so good.
¹for many people, though, it does make good enough pancakes or stir fry. if you’re those people, more power to you, and please do continue to enjoy your culinary wizardry.
²in any case, there were chopsticks to be had and they were serving ten ren tea, so the chinese claim isn’t far off.