Restaurant Review: Hongde Vegetarian

By Liam Gibson  /  Staff reporter

Sat, Oct 07, 2017 - Page 13

Many eateries suffer from the curse of whitewashed walls. Stripped of color and pattern, they lack even the faintest hint of design, and with the help of a pair of tasteless white florescent tube lights hanging overhead, evoke the monotony of office, school and hospital walls around the nation. The interiors of vegetarian restaurants seem particularly prone to this pigment deficiency, which makes walking into Hong De Vegetarian (泓德素食) on Nanchang Road (南昌路) feel like a breath of fresh air.

A flower theme begins as soon as you enter the restaurant with a lotus outline on the entry door, and continues on canvases that line the walls inside. The painted petal’s bright reds and yellows stand out brilliantly against the soothing greyish teal walls, each composition is framed in a handsome thick bronze frame. Soft, focused beams shine down on each artwork from stylish track lights mounted on the ceiling.

You may be forgiven for mistaking it for a small art gallery, but it is this aesthetic approach that has set the Fan (范) family’s restaurant apart for so long. With Mum and Dad at the helm and the five grown children (four sons, one daughter) all doing their bit, it’s a family affair that’s been running in the same location for fifteen years — no mean feat for that part of town.

I’ve only just sat down and I’m already at ease.

Thankfully, the aesthetic experience doesn’t stop at the interior features.

The petals of the daylilies (金針花) are a sunny yellow rimmed with orange that contrast beautifully with the greens of the sweet potato leaves. Floating atop the Daylily Ramen (金萱美人拉麵, NT$90), they provide brilliant strokes of color against the whites of snow fungus, bamboo shoot and noodles that lye deeper in the broth below.

The magic to the dish is it’s subtlety and balance. All the ingredients are carefully composed and compliment each other effectively. The broth is clear and light with a mushroom-based vege stock that gives the soup it’s foundational savory flavor. The shoot pieces are peeled, removing the sharp acerbic bite that the skin of bamboo often brings, while retaining their pleasant slight crunchiness. The snow fungus is rather plain, but it’s unique jelly-like texture make it fun to chew. The daylilies, when taken with the broth alone, give a subtle sweet aftertaste that is reminiscent of some floral teas. The sweet potato leaves are fresh and well prepared and have no trace of the bitterness they often give off when overcooked. The ginger, while adding it’s characteristic zing, is toned down and certainly not overpowering. Unfortunately the noodles themselves lacked chewiness and were a little limp. Overall, it’s a hearty balanced dish that’s both filling and nourishing.

The veg-minced pork rice’s (NT$30) faux-mince meat topping is dark and juicy. It’s flavor is reminiscent of braised meat dishes so common in Chinese cooking, but it also contains pickled green vegetables which add bite, not unlike peppers in taco mince. The white rice is speckled with some light brown grains. The proportion of mince to rice is just right so that you can mix the sauce throughout the rice evenly.

A small glass display cabinet perched next to the counter contains several cold dishes, each for NT$30. I pick fried eggplant with Thai basil. Well-cooked in the classic combo of soy sauce-vinegar, the flesh of the eggplant is mushy, the skin tender and slightly chewy. Balance is again seen in the proportions of this dish, the eggplant pieces are exactly the same size and shape, as are the basil leaves, creating a pleasing consistency.

The background music shifts from tasteful classical piano to Indian lute, setting a pensive ambience, something you might expect on a yoga retreat. There’s none of your typical chanted sutra played on repeat here.

But just when you think Hong De has tossed the how-to manual out the window altogether, hallmarks of the classic Taiwanese vegetarian establishment come into view; the canteen of green tea with free refills in plastic cups, a two meter-long wall hanging of the heart sutra, scripted in beautiful calligraphy.

This is what is so inspiring about Hong De. With a simple consideration of aesthetics, it elevates the dining experience while staying true to the spirit of the vegetarian eatery. The image of those trademark teal walls linger in the mind long after the flavors of the meal have faded. What a difference a splash of color can make. Other outlets would be wise to take a leaf out Hong De’s book.