After reading an NYTimes article on the proliferation of creative and delicious veggie burgers in restaurants across America, I was inspired to go forth, albeit with hopes set pretty low, to see what Shanghai has to offer in that department.
My first chance came a few days ago, when I met up with a friend at Anna Maya, a cute, cozy vegetarian café in the French Concession that looks and feels miles away from China. Its interior is thoughtfully decorated and feels kind of rustic, like the inside of someone’s cottage, with wooden floorboards and rafters, antique furniture, vases and potted plants, and sofas on one end. There was also a display of yoga-related pamphlets and free booklets (in Chinese) on vegetarianism.
Their small hand-written menu listed an assortment of soups, salads, Japanese-style fare like soba noodles and curry, fresh juices, desserts — and, of course, the “ultimate veggie burger” (65 RMB) that I’d read about online and come for. My friend ordered the same thing. When we asked the waitress, in Chinese, whether the burger came with anything on the side, she got confused and tried to convince us to order a soup or a salad. After a frustrating minute of dialogue we decided just to wait and see what we would get.
What we got looked promising, and healthful:
The patty, which was made from chickpeas, corn, cauliflower, brown rice, turmeric, and coriander, had a fresh, albeit subtle, flavour, and the patty didn’t crumble excessively, which was a plus. The whole-wheat bun it was served on, however, was too dense and dry, and the half of a cherry tomato, lettuce leaf, and slice of avocado did little to moisten our mouths. The owner was nice enough to come around and ask us how we were doing, and when we told her it was a bit dry she brought over a dish of white sauce, which made it slightly better. But it still didn’t give me the full, satisfying feeling I expect from a burger, meat-based or not — especially one that claims to be “ultimate”. Maybe if they livened it up by toasting the bread and throwing in a couple more tomatoes, raw onion, and other garnishes… it would stand a chance.
After we were done, we went up to the vegan dessert display, which had 6 or 7 items ranging from banana pudding to strawberry tofu tart to apple crumble. The owner, a Japanese lady who was friendly and clearly passionate about the food she served, lit up as she explained the desserts to us. We were intrigued by a brown rice-red bean tart of sorts and decided to share a slice (35 RMB).
It cradled in its nutty vegan crust sweetened brown rice, red bean paste, and other unknown sweet things, and came with a small bowl of red bean paste, which was much needed as the tart itself was somewhat dry and tough and required a bit of jaw work. In spite of the texture, I enjoyed its deep and wholesome sweetness as well as the idea that for a dessert, it was pretty damn nutritious.
I really wanted to love my meal at Anna Maya, just because I liked the café’s ambiance and friendly owner. But even though the flavours were well-mixed, the textures weren’t quite right in the two dishes we tried (maybe that’s just how it has to be if you can’t use dairy and eggs?). While it wasn’t outrageously overpriced as one might fear such a niche restaurant might be, it would’ve added up if I wanted a soup or a drink (~30 RMB). The service was on the slow side, which was ok with me, but while the staff were nice, they could have been better trained.
I might return to try their other desserts — like their most popular chocolate tofu tart, which was sold out that night — but I won’t be ordering the burger again.
Anna Maya Vegetarian Cafe
3 Taojiang Lu, near Hengshan Lu (上海市桃江路3号,近衡山路)