Vegi Food Kitchen
'Parasol in pearls', 'Botanic Garden', 'Silver Frills'. Apt names for what a friend calls 'vegetables in drag'. But don't be fooled by the evocative descriptions. At Causeway Bay's busy Vegi Food Kitchen, the dishes are, like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, more style than substance.
Silver Frills, for instance, had neither shine nor flounce. A small dish containing fried bean sprouts, shredded mushrooms, bamboo shoots and celery on a bed of crunchy noodles, it was basic fare, though healthy and flavoursome. At $55, it was also a pinch more than most other vegetarian restaurants charged for similar offerings.
As was the shark's fin soup, even though the $70 portion was enough for two. Unlike some creative vegetarian dishes, this dish was a poor, politically correct alternative. Consisting of vermicelli (the fin substitute), tofu and mushrooms in a clear broth, it did not have the slipperiness or smoothness of its namesake. Which is unfortunate, considering diners' slow but inevitable rejection of the real thing.
To tempt meat eaters or recent converts to non-flesh diets, this restaurant, like many of Hong Kong's vegetarian restaurants, also offers dishes whose names are designed to whet carnivorous appetites. My guest zoomed in on the rip steak with chilli in sweet and sour sauce. The $60 dish, proclaimed to be 'filling for even the most ravenous stomach', was a fully vegetarian meal consisting of 'meaty' chunks whose texture resembled toffee apples.
While many may think these fab fakes are a relatively new invention, the Chinese have in fact been refining their production for more than 1,000 years, using tofu, mushrooms and wheat gluten (the protein in flour) to create meat substitutes that bear an uncanny likeness to the real thing.
One dish that has fooled many is chai loh mei (which is not on the English-language menu at Vegi Food Kitchen but can be found in the windows of its takeaway counter). An inexpensive hodgepodge of gluten-based chunks that are usually eaten cold, a serving ($28 for take-out; 10 per cent more for eat-in guests) usually contains a handful of different meats. My favourite is the faux barbecue pork. So skilful are the chefs at some restaurants that I can sometimes pop a piece in my mouth, close my eyes and imagine myself (in pre-vegetarian days) scoffing sweet, juicy pork straight from my mother's shopping bag.
Unfortunately, instead of shutting my peepers, I opened them wide when a thick, black strand of hair was spotted poking through one of the meats. And then another. And another. Aghast at the thought of finding more, we simply lay down our chopsticks in protest.
Pointing at the rogue ingredients to explain why the dish hadn't been touched, we were immediately told we wouldn't be charged. At least we can't complain about the service. With one beer, dinner for two came to $270.
Shop B, G/F, 13 Cleveland Street, Causeway Bay. Tel: 2890 6660. Open: 10am-11.30pm daily. $$