Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食) is a vegetarian restaurant located on tranquil, tree-lined Xinhua Road. Its storefront window claims a menu free of mock meats, fried or deep-fried dishes, MSG, and carbonated beverages.
Wu Guan Tang is another name for zhai tang (斋堂), the hall where meals are taken by monks in a Buddhist temple. Wu Guan refers to the five observations a monk must keep in mind during the meal. (Some more info in English and Chinese.) And indeed, the interior of the restaurant evokes a serene, spiritual atmosphere — ironically hard to find in Shanghai’s touristy and money-grabbing temples — that encourages slow and thoughtful eating.
Sean and I had come here once before when our vegan friend came to visit over a year ago, but had somehow forgotten about it since then. Another friend of mine told me recently he’d tried the place and didn’t like it at all (too bland), which subtly kept me away until a reminder from an employee at vegan dessert shop The Freshary (which I’ll write about soon) inspired us to give it another go on Friday.
Their Chinese and English-Chinese menus are handwritten, showcasing daily selections of juice/congee/soy drink/etc. that repeat by week. Unfortunately, there are no pictures and the English names of many of the items aren’t very descriptive (e.g. “Mixed vegetable in sauce”), so it can be hard to make informed choices on a first visit unless you have done some research beforehand or ask the server for recommendations.
We started with two cold dishes, a refreshing Cold noodle in vinegar-pepper sauce (酸辣凉皮, 25 RMB) — mung bean strips with peanuts, walnuts, cucumber strips, and three sauces — and an Eggplant in sesame paste (麻酱茄条, 22 RMB), which was melt-in-your-mouth tender but barely tasted of sesame paste, if at all.
We also ordered two of their signature dishes. The Special baked potato (烤土豆, 18 RMB) is to die for: soft and buttery (not sure if they actually used butter though) with a thin, slightly chewy skin that’s full of flavour. The Steamed potato with carrots and pears (一品鲜, 28 RMB), more like mashed potato/carrot with slivers of mushroom served inside a large bell pepper, is also one to be savoured. A photo of this dish graces every English and Chinese webpage about this restaurant.
We also threw in a recommendation from the waitress, drawn in by the word “pita”. The Pita with kale borecole and wing beans (榄菜龙豆口袋饼, 35 RMB), with its funnily-shaped beans and inky sauce, looked a bit ominous at first, but was quite good with the warm pita pockets. We added a strip of cold eggplant to each pita to add textural variety.
All of these dishes exhibited delicate flavours that some may find too bland. But Sean, who likes to add salt to every other dish I make at home, really liked it, so this says something! In a quiet, secluded environment like this where loud flavours would be out of place, it is perhaps easier to find appreciation for a more subtle set of flavours. While I enjoy Vegetarian Lifestyle’s flavourful mock-meat dishes, there is only so much deep-fried bean product I can take in a month. I like that this restaurant dares to celebrate the vegetable for what it is, and to make vegetarian food truly light and healthful.
All in all, Wu Guan Tang is the place to go if you are in the mood for a clean, unpresuming, well-made meatless meal (and some killer potato dishes) in a relaxing environment, or if you’re a vegetarian looking for a break from oily mock meats. I’ve read that there’s an outdoor third floor dining space, and plan to check that out when the temperature starts to drop again and mozzies go back into hibernation.
Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食)
349 Xinhua Road, near Dingxi Road
(21) 6281-3695 (reservations recommended)