One recent evening at Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant, I came to the startled realization that though I was still in Houston, a city that for culinary, as opposed to religious, reasons holds the cow only slightly less sacred than does New Delhi, I had entered very, very deep into the realm of the meatless. My epiphany came as the result of a recommendation from the proprietor. My dining party had already sampled the buffet, stocked with reliable Asian-style vegetarian basics such as steamed mixed vegetables, curried potatoes and brown rice. But then it was sweetly suggested that we try the duck.
Duck? I had to wonder if I'd heard right. Though many of the Houston restaurants known for vegetarian food throw meat into their menu mix to appeal to a broader crowd, Wonderful Vegetarian isn't one of these. It's vegetarian to the core, a place where slightly preachy tracts that promote the benefits of a meat free diet are left unobtrusively lying around.
Yet duck was what I was being offered, all right. Only it was a duck that had never come close to taking flight; it was a vegetarian simulacrum, a duck made completely out of vegetable components. When it was placed on our table, I was startled to realize that, had I not been wearing my contacts, the substance before me would have indeed looked like duck, albeit boneless. It was sumptuously brown and striated like the flesh of a fowl. And how did they make the surface look like an agreeably crisped skin? It turns out that the main building block here is layer upon layer of bean curd sheets, a substance best described as the phyllo pastry of the soybean world. Cooked in soy milk so that the top layer puckers up and forms a skin, resolutely chewy like duck, browned and sliced into croissant-sized pieces, zapped with a hint of citrus, this pseudofowl, aided by the diner's imagination, almost brings to mind duck à l'orange. Almost.
It's curious that Wonderful Vegetarian and Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe, two of the Houston restaurants most completely committed to the value of the plant kingdom, both seem compelled to play at this game of mock meat. Located within a few lights of each other on Westheimer, Wonderful Vegetarian and Green Planet are a pair of cafes that know their way around a soybean. Both of these restaurants feature reasonably priced, remarkably varied buffets that change daily. Both are basically Asian in their approach. And both restaurants can introduce the typical middle-of-the-road omnivorous diner -- if perhaps not the militant meat eater -- to the pleasures of sticking strictly to the edict "Eat your veggies."
Yet there those faux filets are. Oh, well, if that's what it takes to survive in this flesh-obsessed culture, so be it. Indeed, this diner, who enjoys her regular ration of beef as much as the next Texan, was won over by the "totally vegan" buffet at Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe. On my first visit, wary of vegetarian dishes trying to be something else, I let my companion help himself to the servings of soy beef with broccoli and turnip greens with soy bacon. The "beef" patty looked too much like Spam for me, though it turned out to be surprisingly palatable. And the soy bacon was too evenly striped and had an alarming petroleum aftertaste.
Instead, give me seconds and thirds any day of Green Planet's mild and briny tofu with seaweed, or the dense and vigorous soy gluten and bean soup. Certain Americanized Chinese standards, such as the rice noodles and the curried vegetables and rice, definitely satisfied, while others, such as the doughy and grassy-tasting egg rolls and the hot and sour soup, which, although hot, was not sour, did not. Also interesting were the superbly gingery collard greens and carrots and the kidney beans with coconut (a Chinese version of red beans and rice?). But other than to fill space, I saw no reason for the inclusion on the buffet of coleslaw and potato salad. We all know there exists a vegetarian version of mayonnaise, so why bother with these pedestrian occidental salads?
It was on that first visit, while pondering the offbeat music wafting over the speakers -- sort of a Chinese tango -- that I discovered the sesame veggie balls. These crunchy, fried little fellows cloaked in their ethereal jacket of golden sesame seeds won't appeal to everyone. They are, in fact, a rather base indulgence -- much in the same vein as eating raw cookie dough, my companion observed. Try them with hot mustard to atone for their exuberant sweetness, but do try them. This is surely Chinese comfort food.
On my next visit to Green Planet, the appeal of the mock meat proved irresistible; I had to try some of the curious sounding dishes. How in the world, I wondered, could they pull off a vegetarian kidney? (While Wonderful offers a variety of vegetarian poultry, beef and pork dishes, the real oddities, such as vegetable shellfish and vegetable organ meat, seem exclusive to Green Planet.) I was ready to have some fun.
Gazing at the backlit photos of menu items behind the cash register, I decided to sample first the vegetarian fish in brown sauce. It had a familiar look, being constructed of the same bean curd sheets as Wonderful's vegetarian duck, although with the addition of a stratum of seaweed to impart an oceanic flavor. Matchsticks of fresh zucchini and carrots were piled atop for color, crunch and, no doubt, vitamins. Biting into a chewy mouthful, I closed my eyes and could visualize a richly gravied, pan-broiled bluefish. Without the benefit of previewing any photographic representations, my table next ordered Green Planet's two most bizarre offerings: sauted vegetarian abalone and vegetarian kidney in barbecue sauce.
In the U.S., abalone live only off the California coast, and over-fishing has led to laws preventing its export from the state; as a result, I've never seen an actual slab of fresh abalone. Perhaps that's what made it easy for me to imagine that I was eating the real thing. This imitation version, which resembled wide noodles, was made from potato flour with a bit of mushroom and served in a mild brown (beige, really) sauce with plenty of vegetables such as carrots, celery, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms. Appearance? It could pass for a wan version of the thinly pounded steaks that are the usual method for serving abalone. (Or at least it could pass for the photos of the steaks I've seen.) Texture? It seemed appropriately rubbery.
In any event, the primary basis for judging these imitations is not how well they replicate the original, but how much innovation the preparer has displayed in finding ways to concoct tasty meals while eschewing the animal kingdom. And if a dish, besides pleasing my eye and my palate, goes so far as to engage my imagination and provide an amusing topic of conversation, it's more than successful. Such was the case with Wonderful Vegetarian's duck and Green Planet's abalone. And such was the case with the veggie kidney. These nut-sized morsels of a soy and potato flour blend came with stir-fried vegetables in a middling hot, tart sauce. The kidneys themselves were, oddly enough, not kidney-colored, but white. The real conversation maker, however, was their shape: positively brainlike.
While the six-month-old Green Planet is radically testing the waters, busy experimenting with esoterica, the eight-year-old Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant is perfecting its craft with the basic component of any reliable vegetarian restaurant: everyday vegetables. They accomplished a surprising feat one night. On the same buffet, at the same time, they offered mixed vegetables in brown sauce, mixed vegetables in white sauce, mixed vegetables in black bean sauce and mixed vegetables in ginger sauce. It's likely that only a restaurant that takes great pains to know its vegetables could risk this kind of repetition without succumbing to monotony.
The results? Yes, each had a distinctive look and flavor; yes, the selection of vegetables in each was basically different, with some overlap; yes, each had survived the steam table to remain crisp, colorful and fresh. The vegetables in brown sauce were reliably consistent, rich with a hint of ginger and stir fried till just crisp. The white sauce had a coconut milk base and was delightfully, mildly sweet and viscous. The black bean sauce was delicate yet spicy, with flecks of pulverized black beans suspended throughout. The ginger sauce, tangy and zippy, was the color of spiced cider. Other successful buffet items were the chewy and hearty tofu in brown sauce (with green beans), the Buddhist Delight, consisting of large bites of slightly bitter and woodsy black mushroom, and the curried potatoes, based in coconut milk and zapped yellow. What didn't work were the inordinately tough sweet potatoes, breaded and fried, and, once again, the hot and sour soup. This version tasted too much of miso. And, horror of horrors, the white rice was severely undercooked, though that may have been just a one night slip-up.
When dining at Wonderful Vegetarian, even if ordering only from the buffet, be sure to ask for a dollop of their homemade hot sauce. Surprisingly, this unctuous affair is not all heat, but is an oil-based, multihued confetti of finely minced, organically grown peppers in which you can really taste the varieties of peppers.
For dessert, skip the coffee (it's instant) and consider the vegetarian chocolate cake, sans dairy products and sans eggs. It's interesting enough to merit a try -- for educational purposes, if not entirely for gustatory appeal. Though tending to be doughy and gummy, in a pinch it could probably satisfy a sweet tooth. Our server pointed out that it contains walnuts, which, she informed us, are good for the brain "because they look like the brain."
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Hmm. I began to imagine new benefits of having eaten my vegetables in the form of those brain-shaped, fake little kidneys.
Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant, 7549 Westheimer (at Hillcroft), 977-3137; Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe, 9013 Westheimer, 783-6622.
Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant: lunch buffet, $4.59; dinner buffet, $5.59; vegetarian duck, $7.95.
Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe: lunch buffet, $4.99; dinner buffet, $5.99; vegetarian kidney in barbecue sauce, $6.95; vegetarian fish in brown sauce, $6.95.