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Mimicked meaty morsels for the mouth

Update: August, 21/2012 - 20:07
Family style: Diners sample vegetarian fare at Truc Lam Trai. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
Vegetarian oasis: The restaurant offers hearty dishes like noodles in a thick stew as well as lighter options, all completely meat-free.
More than ‘meats' the eye: Faux beef is stewed in a sweet black pepper glaze.

Truc Lam Trai

Add: 39 Le Ngoc Han

Tel: 84 4 6278 1848

Hour: 9am-9pm

Price: VND60,000-500,000

Comment: Hit-or-miss vegetarian fare, including various faux meats

With a plethora of vegetarian-friendly dishes and faux meats, not to mention the occassional dining monk, Truc Lam Trai could be the restaurant for those nonplussed by Ha Noi's more carnivorous offerings, Elisabeth Rosen reports.In a city where street vendors grill every part of the animal from trotters to brain and ordering pho sans beef is seen as a virtual declaration of insanity, seeking out a vegetarian meal can often feel like an arduous pilgrimage.

So it's fitting that Truc Lam Trai, a vegetarian oasis in a corner of Hoan Kiem known more for meaty bun bo Nam Bo than finely crafted legumes, has all the trappings of a Buddhist temple. Set back from the street by a tiled gateway, the place feels steeped in Zen-like stillness. At one point during a recent meal, a monk in crimson robes even walked by our table.

Like a pilgrimage, a meal at Truc Lam Trai is an act of faith. Ignore the server's attempt to tug away your Vietnamese menu and replace it with an English one – the prices are considerably marked up for foreigners, and the translations don't shed any light on what emerges from the kitchen – and just point to a few items, hoping for the best.

There is one exception to this rule. Every meal at Truc Lam Trai should begin with the restaurant's signature spring rolls, nem Truc Lam (VND8,000 apiece).The kitchen delivers one of the city's best renditions of the classic Vietnamese appetiser: crisp without leaving a trail of grease, stuffed with clumps of scallion and hearty chunks of faux meat. Take advantage of the wickedly spicy dipping sauce to flavour the less aggressively seasoned dishes.

When it comes to main courses, though, the faux meat is hit or miss. Cooked well, simmered in pepper sauce or diced and wrapped in spring rolls, it has a satisfying chew. Given the wrong treatment, it tastes like a dried-out bathroom sponge.

Your experience at Truc Lam Trai depends greatly on how long it's been since your last carnivorous repast. "This tastes like chicken!" gushed my companion, who has been a vegetarian for ten years, as we topped our rice with thin slices of ga nuong mat ong (honey-grilled chicken) (VND55,000). Indeed, it did taste like chicken – the overcooked, shrivelled bites that most restaurants have the sense to camouflage in a club sandwich.

To me, honey-grilled chicken conjures up images of the wings sold by the platter on Ly Van Phuc Street, where for the price of one dish at Truc Lam Trai you can share a plate of charcoal-grilled meat, pitted with melting pools of fat and slathered in a thick honey glaze. Staring at our long slab of "chicken," cut into thin slices, I found it hard to see the resemblance. The crispy exterior harboured faint traces of honey, while the soggy interior lacked both flavour and texture.

Bo sot tieu (beef in pepper sauce) fares much better (VND55,000). Tender slices of faux beef are stewed in a sweet black pepper glaze, strewn with slivers of red pepper and onion. Fresh from a week of street-side pho, I could not quite be fooled into thinking that this was the real thing, although my vegetarian companion swore it tasted just like beef. But the meat has a pleasant chew and the pepper-infused syrup is excellent spooned over steamed white rice (an extra cost, but it comes in an enormous vessel, and you won't feel full without it). Granted, it doesn't fall apart into succulent strands, but faux meat often tastes better when the chef gives it its own unique texture, rather than trying to imitate the tenderness of animal tissue.

For a vegetarian, Truc Lam Trai is certainly worth a pilgrimage. However, though the dining experience is pleasant enough, the faux meat won't persuade an omnivore to sacrifice the carnivorous delights of Ha Noi. — VNS

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