SHANGHAI (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The best dish I'm having in an eight-course dinner may be one of the simplest: turnip with dry carrot, quinoa, soy and leek.
If my excitement is hard to comprehend, you might want to pay a visit to Shanghai's Fu He Hui, which recently earned one star from the Michelin guide.
The idea of a vegetarian restaurant would seem a challenging one. Fans of such an eatery are a mixed crowd. Many choose not to eat animal flesh for ethical, religious or environmental reasons - so what do they really want for dinner? Others, especially at the start of a new year, seek veggie plates for health reasons. They tend to remember bacon rather fondly.
Dinner at Fu He Hui won't be an everyday event for most, with dinner sets running 580 yuan (S$119.53) to 780 yuan per person. (A "lighter" set designed for lunch is 380 yuan.) But chef Tony Lu's creations here are worth a visit for inspiration. China has set a national goal of reducing meat consumption by 50 per cent, due to the environmental impact of raising livestock. Those with a vegetables-are-boring mindset may panic at that idea, but Fu He Hui will convince almost anyone that carrots and turnips and leeks can be tasty and filling.
Our eight-course set starts with a trio of canapes, which we are invited to nibble in clockwise order to savour an increasing intensity of flavour. First, there's a dense daub of soy puree, which is a bit of a snoozer despite its intriguing pear shape. Next is a "wild herb pocket", a spoonful of mixed greens deftly packaged in a thin sheet of bean curd. The finale is a flavour bomb - a rich, tart package of plum and lotus root.
Firmly on board now, we dip our spoons into a soup of bamboo pith, in which the netlike fibre floats gracefully in a broth rich with the flavour of Yunnan mushrooms.
That delicate treat was followed by hericium mushroom with mashed rice made macho with spice powder and prettily tied up in bamboo leaf. The mash this produced had the textural heft of meat, though the flavour did not suggest the sort of "fake meat" offered by many vegetarian restaurants that invite you to pretend you are eating duck or pork or fish.
As with other dishes, chef Lu is in-your-face about what you're eating; even the minimalist decor works to keep you focused on your plate, as there's not much else to look at. A pinch of bright green bean and a flash of red chili make the whole effect a visual treat as you unwrap the package.
The next course is the aforementioned turnip. More artful presentation, the turnip is rendered as a trio of glistening pearls, gleaming on a bed of savoury quinoa. Two bright baby carrots add contrast with their colour and texture.
The presentation of spring pancake, meanwhile, invites comparison with Peking duck, with layers of king oyster mushroom, crisp tofu skin, cucumber and soybean paste awaiting our quick roll-up in the pancake. But again, the kitchen doesn't stoop to faux duckery in the filling: the vegetables are very much themselves, and so delectably prepared that you never miss the taste of meat.
The courses are labeled "small delicacies", each little more than a rich bite or three. So while we still have room for two more dishes before dessert, the eight-course set ensures that we won't go hungry, either.
Lily bulb, gingko, asparagus and elm fungus would be a colourful but typical stir-fry of vegetables except for the commanding presence of the fungus, which comes from China's northeast. It has the look and the hearty quality of bacon, but an earthy flavour all its own.
The tomato ravioli comes in a noodle pleated into cup shape, with layers of tomato, smoked mashed potato, rich runny egg yolk, pea and onion powder. Our server confides this is his favourite dish on this menu, and little wonder.
The "flower pot" dessert is the most artsy construction of the night: A small clay pot of roselle and apple is topped with a layer of "dirt", in this case some crunchy cocoa powder. Beneath it are layers of apple sorbet and roselle ice cream, a surprise unless you've anticipated chef Lu's clever "planting" by grasping the ice-cold pot. The dehydrated enoki mushroom seems like mere decorative conceit - it's the "flower" in the pot - but that fungal nibble packs a surprising amount of flavour, slightly sweet. There is osmanthus rice cake on the side, an appropriate finish for a meal just after Chinese New Year.
A delicate black tea was recommended to complement the menu. There is also a respectable wine list on offer, including two Chilean whites by the glass, a chardonnay and a crisp sauvignon blanc, that also go very well with the plant kingdom so beautifully packaged on plates.
FU HE HUI
1037 Yuyuan Road, Changning district, Shanghai.