11 March 2016

Taste of enlightenment

A vegetarian restaurant in Beijing celebrates the food and traditions of Chinese Buddhism, Mike Peters reports.

"We are still enjoying the cool winter," says our waiter at Pure Lotus. I had been less than pleased at the chill March winds that bit through our jackets on our way to dinner, but the words I'm hearing are more metaphor than meteorology.

The plate set before me is a pile of snow: More literally, it's a mound of shredded daikon, a white nest of mildly sweet radish in which are tucked five nibbles with five different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy. They represent the five elements of Chinese divination: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. From one side of the plate, a handful of branches with plum blossoms rises from the shining slivers of "snow", a promise of the spring to come.

This happy outlook is key to Pure Lotus, where Chinese Tibetan Buddhism flowers in a vegetarian menu of dishes that are as delightful to look at as they are to eat. Our appetizer, for example, has the aura of a painting thanks to vegetables gone molecular. Four veggies and yogurt are reduced to colorful, fluffy powders and shaped like a map of "peaceful China on a plate", the colors representing the five soil types of the nation with soft yogurt and toasted strips of burdock in the center.

Beautifully presented foods are only part of the picture. Staff members garbed in Tibetan silk robes guide you with lighted lanterns from the alley into the restaurant foyer. There, long strings of fresh orchid blossoms hang amid bamboo poles in a natural sculpture that's reflowered every week. We sit on a comfortable sofa and relax over tea before being escorted to the dining room.

The restaurant's heart has changed considerably since our last visit three years ago. The main dining room was once a beautiful but cavelike space, dark and mysterious, where diners struggled to read big bulky menus in candlelight.

Today the space is brighter, thanks to big candle chandeliers that give the peacock-blue walls a romantic glow. Sofas along the walls sport plush magenta cushions, and hosts and waiters glide noiselessly through the restaurant in robes of embroidered gold or blue silk. Each table has a miniature water garden running down the middle, where a few violet water lilies float amid islands of white tulips, pine branches and other greenery.

The bulky menu: Gone. In its place are a few pages of poetic fancy. There are no photos of dishes like the starter We Plan Wholeheartedly and Taste the Happiness (English translation: "East meets West tofu/mozzarella with tomatoes salad).

Some dish names are prosaic (Meatlike Brisket) while other are promissory (Universal Salvation - it's fried tofu), but whatever you order, you can expect it to arrive at your table like a work of art, presented with a formal deep bow by your server, a young man who will be traditionally robed but may sport unexpectedly hip white-blond hair.

We got a bit lost in the menu - even the Chinese at our table couldn't decode some of the menu descriptions - so we trusted our luck with the set menu. This 11-course sampling of the menu runs 1,000 yuan ($153) per person, the price range of dinner sets at Beijing's celebrated French restaurant TRB. That will startle some who aren't used to paying much for "just vegetables" and no alcohol served. (A la carte, Mt Wutai Wisdom Mushroom Soup will run you 799 yuan per person, though there are mains that start at 99 yuan for more earthbound wallets.)

But the carefully chosen seasonal ingredients, the rich culture behind the dishes and the exquisite presentation combine to make Pure Lotus a worthy destination for a special-occasion meal.

Early in the elegant parade of dishes comes one of the simplest: an immense purple radish, its perfect roundness evocative of the Earth, hollowed out as a soup bowl. Its natural beauty is set off by a gleaming copper soup spoon. Inside the bowl, the broth of daikon and black fungus is studded with sweet gingko nuts. Each flavor lingers on the palate, and the dish is wedded to the promise of health: The radish is very good for your spleen, we are assured by our waiters, who offer nuggets of information about the Chinese medicine traditions made manifest in other dishes too. In fact, each course is meticulously described as it's presented, in Mandarin and in English.

Seasonal transition is a repeating theme as well. Another dish with a "snowy" base, steamed minced radish and lily buds, features asparagus tips eagerly pushing through to spring's first warmth. There is added sweetness from fresh peas and a substrata of wild mushrooms as one digs in.

The most intriguing and elemental dish on the set may be sea grape, served on a bridge-shaped ice carving. The tiny salty clusters, harvested from deep in the ocean and flown in fresh, are pleasantly crunchy after dipping in a mild vinegar sauce.

Our dessert, meanwhile, boasts some of the year's first strawberries, mixed with other fruits and drizzled with a sauce infused with medicinal herbs from the foothills of the Himalayas. As we enjoy a final tea, we relax with background music that has evolved from a mellow instrumental version of How Great Thou Art to the sonorous bell tones and tinkling chimes that signal the advent of earthy Tibetan chant.

It was enough to make us want to chant ourselves.