Admittedly, the first time I went to The Veggie Table, I was spotted immediately and served extra dishes. This is customary within the industry, to pour a taste of wine or try a new menu item. On subsequent visits, remaining anonymous, I have had equally wonderful meals, despite a lack of meat, egg or dairy.
Vegan food is made without animal products. It’s not defined as being organic, but kitchen commander Laura Fanelli has her own personal rules that include sourcing local organic produce when possible. She even makes the restaurant a pick-up point for CSA (community-supported agriculture) members to collect boxes of organic produce from Haidian’s Little Donkey Farm, which also supplies some ingredients. ‘Sourcing organically is a problem,’ admits Fanelli, whose voice becomes guilt-ridden when she talks about having to use locally grown conventional produce and the carbon footprint that results from using imports.
Hummus (25RMB), described boastfully as ‘the best in Beijing’, is a beehive swirl of chickpea purée Verdict Rookie chef gives us vegan and organic food with great flavours with a lava-flow of olive oil erupting beneath a bright red chilli dusted by a halo of sumac. It could use a heft of garlic but it’s easy to like. For the adventurous, a mock liver paté (28RMB) sounds frightening, but it’s surprisingly good and remarkably close to the real thing. An Indian dahl of stewed lentils with brown rice (65RMB) could serve two, with rich and deep flavours coaxed from spices and vegetables.
The Vegan pizza (65RMB) is a flat disc made from organic local flour that doesn’t hold the crisp-doughy complexity that pizza crust needs. It’s sweet from a spread of sun-dried tomato paste, stippled with flecks of onions and torn pieces of eggplant flesh.
Choose a veggie burger: one with shiitake mushrooms (62RMB) or the ‘Southwestern’ bean burger (58RMBmade of puréed kidney with corn kernels. A wholegrain bun has clearly been designed to partner up, but it’s dense, and the nature of these patties makes them more substantial than a beef burger but without the lethargy that often follows. Fanelli hasn’t found a suitable ketchup, so for now a dollop of vegan mayonnaise will have to suffice.
What’s missing on this winter-heavy menu is the lightness of summer’s bounty. Where are the tomatoes and leafy salads? Although the city is challenged for truly organic produce, salad is an easy find in the summer. The Veggie Table only recently went vegan and is not fully organic (which is impossible in Beijing), but it’s as close as any restaurant has been. What’s most incredible about Fanelli is that she’s a rookie with no prior experience. She is setting a brazen example with guts and determination, and makes a commendable dense glazed chocolate bundt cake (25RMB). There are no eggs. No butter. Now if only we could have it with ice cream.
By Lillian Chou