April, 20 2013 05:20:00

Monastery food for the modern appetite

Vintage vibe:The restaurant is built in a converted old house. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen

Thisfamily-run vegan restaurant offers a contemporary take onBuddhist fare, featuring options like lemongrass-fried snails and "pork" ribs - some more enjoyable than others. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

Buddhist monks don't cook with garlic and onions. They believe that these flavourings hurl the senses into an undesirable state of excitement.

But these ingredients are embraced at Com Chay Ha Thanh, a vegan restaurant that trades ascetic sparsity for a looser, modern take on Buddhist strictures. Located in a narrow, winding alleyway, the old house has a timeworn feel, with age-spotted walls and chipped wooden tables spruced up here and there with bright ornamental flowers. The food, however, is decidedly contemporary.

Opened in 2008 by a Buddhist vegetarian family, Ha Thanh pays tribute to a long tradition of meatless fare. Instead of hunks of animal flesh, you'll find thick slabs of wheat gluten masquerading as caramel pork, streaked with creamy "fat" (Heo quay chay, VND50,000) and orange-rimmed Gio lua (VND35,000) that could easily pass for the porcine version – which, when you think about it, doesn't taste like meat anyway.

Austere monastic food this is not. Garlic and scallions turn up with a frequency rivaled only by oil and breadcrumbs. A good portion of the menu emerges from the deep fryer, which turns out velvety orbs of taro with a brittle crust (Khoai mon chien sot, VND35,000) and fried chicken (Ga manh chien, VND45,000) that tastes exactly like the thick, greasy mess of breaded white meat you can find teenagers munching on plastic stools.

Arrangements have a poetic beauty – a lingering effect of the underlying Buddhist philosophy. Blossoms carved from carrots and peppers burst from greasy chicken wings. Sprigs of herbs render each plate a miniature garden.

But the flavours can be hit or miss. One specialty – although it's not advertised as such – is the tofu in tomato sauce (Dau sot ca chua, VND30,000). Here, the bean curd is carved into flat slices rather than the customary blocks, a nifty trick that lets the tofu soak up more of the sweet, garlicky sauce. But skip the lemongrass tofu (Dau chien xa ot, VND35,000), a Stonehenge of nondescript deep-fried slabs that even chili peppers fail to bring back to life. And steamed fish (Ca thu sot, VND40,000) perfectly recaptures the flaky texture of a mediocre tuna steak.

Snail substitute:No veggie burgers here - the menu is more gastropod than gastropub.

You'll find better fake meat elsewhere in Ha Noi, prepared with a far lighter hand. But the wheat gluten, made in-house, is consistently dependable. Sliced thin and coated in sweet and sour sauce, it makes a wholely unconvincing but enjoyable parody of pork ribs (Suon xao chua ngot, VND35,000).

Skip the factory-produced meats, like the fake snails, which have a rubbery texture that might be more convincing played off as calamari than as earthy gastropod. Spicy lemongrass-chili oil jolts them to a passable level (Oc xao xa ot, VND45,000), while a milder preparation of tofu and banana (Chuoi dau xao, VND35,000) leaves the snails utterly bland. (A better name for this dish would be banana with tofu garnish: the pile of dry boiled fruit contains approximately two pieces of bean curd).

In the end, vegetables offer more satisfaction than any of the meat substitutes. Clay pots turn out masterpieces like buttery islands of eggplant (Ca tim kho) and silken mushrooms (Nam kho tieu, VND50,000) that float in a peppery amber broth. One wishes that more dishes were this light and flavourful.

If you don't feel like putting together a meal – or you're on your own – opt for the set meal (Com xuat, VND30,000-65,000), in which samples of various dishes circle a mound of white rice. The best part is that you never know what you're getting – sometimes even when the dish is set in front of you. Re-reading my notes, I came across frequent items like the following: "Garlic tomato sauce. Chicken? Pork?"

Edible arrangement: You can feel the lingering influence of Buddhist cuisine in the exquisite plating.

Sometimes these surprises are elating, like mellow grilled eggplant and a clear broth filled with velvety ribbons of spinach. A transparent square of mushroom jelly looked off-putting, like a nouvelle cuisine entree gone astray, but turned out to have a surprising depth. Sometimes the surprises are less enjoyable: bland steamed cauliflower, deep-fried spring rolls cooled to lukewarm and given an unsuccessful revival with mayonnaise, a single piece of tofu besieged by chunks of bitter gourd and bamboo shoots.

This week, many Vietnamese will spend a day or two eating vegetarian food, in a Buddhist tradition that is enjoying a growing revival. They could do worse than eating at Ha Thanh. The food might not be pure or ascetic. But this is monastery food for modern times. It's the kind of place that you end up returning to again and again, even if you're not sure why. — VNS



Com Chay Ha Thanh

Address: 116, alley 166, Kim Ma Street

Tel.: 0437263381

Price Range: VND30,000 – 200,000

Comment: Middle of the road vegan fare. Dishes to try: tofu in tomato sauce, sweet and sour ribs, clay pot eggplant and mushrooms


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