My Dragon Boat Festival weekend wrapped up on Monday with a meal back on familiar ground: the popular Vegetarian Lifestyle restaurant. At first I was hesitant about bringing my mom and grandma here, but after a heavy, meat-centric few days we all welcomed the prospect of a light(er) meal. Plus, I wanted to ease their doubts about my recent meatless lifestyle and show them vegetarian food isn’t all bland and boring or limited in choice. My mom, for her part, has tried out quite a few vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong, but has been unimpressed by most of them.
Thankfully, my grandma, an avid meat eater usually dismissive of vegetables, was a good sport about the whole idea, partly because we promised her we’d stop by Xiaoyang’s on Wujiang Lu after lunch for another round of the fried dumplings they’d first tried on Friday.
Vegetarian Lifestyle markets itself as a restaurant committed to “low-carbon living”, incorporating organic ingredients and a no-meat (or egg, I think), no-MSG, no-alcohol, no-smoking policy — all very rare in these parts. While their dishes can sometimes be hit or miss (think bland or oily), what I love about this restaurant is the opportunity to try lots of new and different foods and creative ingredient combinations — it showcases all the wonderful possibilities within meatless cooking/dining, while their clever mock-meat creations provide new vegetarians — and their omnivorous dining companions — with their “meat” fix. It’s a bold concept, but obviously works, as there are now multiple locations in Shanghai and the Jing’an one seems to always be packed.
After being dropped off at the wrong intersection and walking 10 minutes in the rain, we got seated almost right away in their clean, comfortable, well-lit dining area and got to work flipping through their giant menu. As it was a public holiday, the set lunch was unavailable, though that worked out for the better as we had a full range of options and were in no rush.
While we waited for our food to arrive, we were served some fruit and a delicious barley tea that was refilled throughout the meal.
The first dish that came was a cold one, mung bean noodle strips with shredded carrot & cucumber (麻酱三丝). The simple ingredients were brought to life a very fragrant, flavourful sesame paste.
Other dishes we ordered:
Amaranth (苋菜) in broth. The greens were tender and not overcooked, and while the unusual ingredients — red bell pepper, ginger slivers, orange rind — perched on top shocked the taste buds at first, I quickly got used to it and actually found it a refreshing alternative to the typical garlic pairing.
The wild rice stem, or water bamboo, came dressed in mock meat crumbles (素末茭白). I don’t think I’d ever had this before — while a bit bland on its own, the vegetable had a pleasant texture. The mock meat didn’t add much to the dish.
The “eight treasures in hot sauce” (八宝辣酱), which wasn’t actually spicy, was spectacular. This is what we were able to pick out: doufu gan (dried bean curd), mushroom, peanut, green pea, vegetarian shrimp, something that tasted exactly like preserved ham (腊肉), and maybe bamboo shoot? This sweet-and-savoury dish was an addictive explosion of flavour and texture that was perfect company for rice, and I plan to order this every time I come here from now on.
The matsutake with XO sauce (XO酱焗松茸), one of the priciest dishes on the menu, was sadly one I couldn’t appreciate. I liked its size and texture, but there was a rather strange — almost foul — taste (or smell?) which the sauce did not cover up, though apparently that is what this rare and expensive “pine mushroom” is prized for. This was also the only dish my grandma complained about.
In acknowledgement of Dragon Boat Festival, the restaurant was giving out mini osmanthus & red bean zongzi (rice dumplings), which was a nice surprise. Full from all the food, we just split one and I took one home (and reheated for breakfast the next morning).
It was still raining when we left, so we caught a cab to nearby Wujiang Lu food street for the much-awaited fried dumplings. But to my mom’s and my surprise, as we neared our destination, my grandma suddenly announced she was actually quite full, and would probably be fine without it (which was almost music to our ears as we’ve been trying to encourage her to eat less meat for her health). So we said our farewells in the taxi and parted ways, ending our multi-generation food-filled weekend in Shanghai.
Other great dishes I’ve tried:
Black pepper “beef” (黑椒素牛排)
Sweet-and-sour deep-fried crispy mushroom (酥香脆菇)
Wuxi “spareribs” (无锡酱排)
Lettuce wrap (乾坤生菜素松)
Salt-and-pepper battered lotus root (椒盐藕片)
Dish to avoid:
Their xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Yeah, yeah, how could I have thought that vegetarian XLB could be any good? (I have heard good things about the ones at Din Tai Fung, though.)
Vegetarian Lifestyle a.k.a. Jujube Tree (枣子树) Jing’an branch
258 Fengxian Rd. near Nanhui Rd.
6215-7566 (reservations highly recommended)