If you had told me yesterday I was about to eat one of my most memorable meals without a single sliver of meat passing my lips, nobody would have been more surprised than myself. This unashamed carnivore, lover of roast duck, confit of rabbit, rare roast beef and lamb shanks, has fallen hard for the vegetarian food at a new Shanghai eatery called Dashu Wujie 大蔬无界.
Last night I was very kindly invited to enjoy a ten course vegetarian degustation dinner, in the company of both Chinese and English language food writers and bloggers (for example the lovely and well-travelled Sugared & Spiced
). This was a specially prepared dinner, so I’m planning to get back there soon and try their regular menu when I have a chance.
Overlooking Xujiahui Park, the entire five story restaurant was designed by a Buddhist monk who happens to be an architect (or an architect who happens to be a monk, I’m a little unclear which) and exudes a zen-like calm with beautiful interior wood panelling, natural linen curtains, heavy timber chairs and paper screens. Each floor represents one of five essential Chinese elements, starting with water and rising a floor at a time through wood, fire (naturally, the fire floor is the restaurant’s huge wok-fired kitchen), earth and finally gold.
It’s a far cry from many of Shanghai’s other vegetarian restaurants, featuring a surfeit of orange formica and fake roast goose. I’ve never understood why a vegetarian would want to eat gluten in the shape of a pork cutlet, or tofu shaped as shrimp. These places seem to have an uncertain foot in both camps, as though to say ‘Yes, we’re a vegetarian restaurant! But we also have fake meat!’ Why not celebrate the essence of the vegetables themselves?
Chef Tony Chang, from Taiwan, invited specifically for this four day tasting event, executed ten perfect small dishes doing just that, and left us all reeling as dish after exquisite dish was placed in front of us. I got to try many unusual ingredients or flavour combinations I’d never tried before. Here’s a little taste:
L: Papaya and wild mushroom tower – layers of sweet papaya with a mildly spiced salsa, caramelized pineapple and wild mushrooms served on a sliver of white radish. Sweet, soft, crunchy and spicy, a very palate-cleansing start to the meal.
R: To give you some idea of the complexity of this food, the tiny, perfect tomato in this dish of eggplant with lotus seed puree had been peeled, marinated in red wine vinegar, red wine, and then plum juice for six hours before being roasted, then painstakingly cored and filled with miniature apple mirepoix. It tasted sublime and after a small bite I just put the whole thing in my mouth and enjoyed the intense explosion of sweet tomato flavour.
L: Fresh green pea soup with light milk foam and roast tomato vegetable crisp
R: Three mushrooms. The large textured mushroom is a Lion’s Mane mushroom (also called hóu tóu gū 猴头菇 or monkey head mushroom), rare and flown fresh from Yunnan and cooked with light Sichuan spiciness. The mushroom rested on a circle of white mushroom roasted with miso, alongside a single morel. I’ve never tried a Lion’s Mane mushroom before but it had a wonderful soft smooth texture and (dare I say it) beefy flavour enhanced by the miso and spice.
L: Braised chickpeas with a soft pumpkin crepe and fresh broadbeans. Sweet, nutty and one of my favourites.
R: Bamboo Fungus Eight Treasure pouch – this soft, sponge-textured fungus (which takes an entire year to sprout), had been carefully wrapped around various edible treasures including red date, frilly translucent white fungus, goji berries, black fungus, and dried long’ans, and served in a delicate vegetable consomme. Very refined, although the bamboo fungus’ texture had uncomfotable parallels in the decidedly non-vegetarian fried boiled pig skin.
L: Baby cabbage, carrot aspargus and water bamboo shoot, braised with three cup sauce and served with a soft spinach timbale with the tiniest hint of fresh nutmeg. I loved the water bamboo – a new taste and texture (not unlike cooked radish) for me.
R: Ravioli with red and yellow peppers and tomato concasse. Perfectly soft, yielding ravioli with the sweetness of peppers.
The two sweet courses:
L: A dish I never expected to enjoy – red bean soup served with homemade mochi stuffed with sweet fermented black rice. Red bean is my least favourite sweet Chinese flavour, with its cloying powdery aftertaste but this soup was flavoured with a little dried citrus peel and served smooth and hot, and had an unmistakeable hint of chocolatey-ness about it. Perhaps it was the mental conjuring together of chocolate and orange.
R: Pineapple oreo roll with banana chocolate mousse and meringue tartlet. Chef Chang advised us to move from right to left in eating this dish, tasting the tart pineapple first and the smooth sweet meringue last. The tiny pineapple ‘oreo’ was constructed of laminated layers of pineapple rolled around a frozen chocolate centre, a brilliant combination of intense acid sweetness and chocolate. I can still taste it today!
We finished the evening with strong organic Yunnan coffee served in happily mismatched ceramic cups from Spin ceramics, and a chat with chef Tony Chang, a very jovial man in his late fifties with a broad smile and a kind round face who had clearly enjoyed having complete free rein in the vast kitchens at Dashu Wujie. He sought, but largely failed to elicit any criticism we could offer – a tough ask given that every single dish had been so carefully thought out and so well executed.
It really is the mark of a good meal when you’re still thinking about it long into the following day. Eating vegetarian food is often difficult in a country so recently deprived of meat that they’re now obsessed with it, but I’ve noticed a growing movement away from heavy meat dishes and towards healthy, light eating with an emphasis on organic food.
Good food generously given will keep me happy for some hours (I’m easily pleased) but it takes a particularly special meal to keep me happy for several days as I rethink new tastes, textures and combinations and try and analyse why they were so enjoyable. Very exciting.
392 Tianping Lu between Hengshan Lu and Zhaojiabang Lu