Pure Lotus Beijing
Had dinner the other night with friends at Pure Lotus at the Lido Hotel. When invited to go there and told that it was vegetarian, I confess I was less than enthusiastic. I was picturing a sort of grunge place like you might find in Greenwich Village or San Francisco, with tattooed and pierced New Agers selling tofu burgers and tempeh. Instead it was a Buddhist sort of place with lovely decorations and gauze curtains and waiters and waitresses dressed sort of like Buddhist monks and nuns. In fact, the place is either run or owned by monks, so I wonder if the waiters might not in fact be associated with an order (no pun intended).
From being given our menus we should have known this place would be different--they were enormous and heavy tomes, with the drinks menu separate from the food menu (perhaps because otherwise it would have been too heavy to lift). They serve no alcohol in addition to serving no meat, so for drinks we ordered various fruit concoctions (I had beet, carrot, orange and something else, for example) and a pot of really expensive tea (Y288!). Then the food menu came, with such evocative, but ultimately unhelpful dish names like "I love you--no discussion". Fortunately the waiter offered some recommendations, though I was distressed to see that he tended to recommend all the really pricey dishes. We ended up ordering far too many dishes, but they were all amazing, and beautifully presented. Our first dish, a huge bowl that resembled the shell out of which Venus emerged in Botticelli's painting, was filled with ice cubes on which lay 6 servings of 'smoked meats' that for all the world tasted just like meat but were in fact made of flavored and pressed tofu. Before serving the dish, the waiter poured some sort of liquid into a container in the bowl, causing dry-ice like smoke to waft out of the bowl, making a lovely rippling effect that was mesmerizing. We also had "spare ribs" that again tasted just like the real thing but were made of wheat gluten; "suckling pig" that was served like Beijing duck with wrappers, sauce and cucumber slices; ethereal mushrooms that were very simply prepared but delicious, and a fantastic dish of cubes of tofu with chilies that was as close to gongbao jiding as you can get without actually using a chicken. The whole thing was great, and we had a lovely time. The bill was a bit of a shock, though--Y1415 for the six of us ($180), by far the most we have paid for dinner in Beijing since arriving.
Despite the relatively high (for Beijing) price, the dinner was worth the experience. The service was very good, if a bit over the top, and the serving dishes were all beautiful with the food beautifully presented. And all of the dishes were very tasty and so well executed that I would consider this a good place to take people for an out-of-the-ordinary meal. There is also a location near the Agricultural Exhibition Center.
That does kind of sound like a new-age schtick and, if I may say so, a bit of a ripoff. As a devout carnivore, however, I have to acknowledge that more traditional and venerable vegetarian restaurants like Gong De Lin in Shanghai (there's one of the same name in Beijing) have made valuable contributions to the main corpus of Chinese cuisine, through creative use of doufu, doufu gan, doufu pian, bai ye, kaofu, youmianjing etc. I would find a big Shanghainese meal lacking if it didn't have mock goose among the cold appetizers, or a kaofu dish either as a cold app or a main. I'm not surprised to find myself eating a doufu gan or bai ye with greens or fresh bean dish too, and what's a more satisfying veggie dish even to people who don't like veggies than youmian jing sauteed with tender young qing cai ("Shanghai bok choy")?
My friends are increduluous when I yell them that I could easily switch to vegetarianism through Chinese food, though I religiously avoid western-style vegetarian cuisine and doubt if I would ever fork out (so to speak) the kind of dough (sheesh!) you did at Pure Lotus.