Gong De Lin Review

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Beijing's Forbidden City and Gong De Lin's InteriorGong De Lin
2, Qianmen Gong Daije, Chongwen District
功德林素菜馆
北京市崇文区前门东大街2号

$60 for two, with tea

Restaurant Type : Fine Dining | Casual
Diamonds : ♦♦♦♦♦♦

Exploring new cities in search of great vegan restaurants is a true passion of mine, but as temperatures drop and I drag my partner along windy snow-swept streets, her heeled feet clacking in the snow, I feel a sense of doom closing in with the long shadows of the setting sun. We’re looking for one of the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurants, GongDeLin, and I’d ask for directions, but we’re on one of those strange streets you seem to find only in capital cities—multi-lane roads cut through government office after government office, each one squat and monolothic. Finally, just as the street opens onto a ring road, we see a lone cycle rickshaw creaking towards us.

The driver pulls down his scarf, revealing a curious face. You can tell he wonders what the hell we’re doing in the middle of nowhere.

But he’s not curious enough to alter from his routine-instead he inhales deeply and begins his spiel. Ordinarily unpersuasive, this time it works a treat.

“Do you know where this address is?” I try in English first.

“I take you, I take you.” clearly, he has no clue.

“Qing ni gao su wo GongDeLin zen me zou?” I try again in Mandarin.

“Oh it’s very far. You have to ride, I take you, I take you.”

We cave, and half a block and $20 (US) later, stand shivering outside our destination.

We step into the ornate interior and immediately feel relieved. The air is warm and fragrant, heavy with the pungent and earthy scent of black beans and soy. It’s a welcome respite from the cold days of Beijing in the late fall, and we hope our evening has turned around. A beautiful hostess in a red brocade cheongsam walks towards us through a quiet restaurant:

“No English!”

I’m not sure if she is referring to the language or my ethnicity-I want to say “But I’m Canadian!” But surely that’s not the right response. Startled for a moment, we pause in the lacuna of the foyer, trepidatious and unsure.

“PoTungHua shi hao ma?” I say, asking if Chinese is alright…

She sizes us up carefully—and finally, reluctantly, she nods.

It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings.

We’re escorted through the restaurant towards a table in the back corner. The room is beautiful. Antique tables and chairs proudly highlight the restaurants long heritage, while red and yellow tablecloths enliven the rich dark wood environment. A cooler-case refrigerator, incongruous in the ornate room, emits a low churning hum, while at a table nearby, a group of yes men surround a smoking executive in a forest green suit. His fat cigar bobs, weaves and seems to cavort as he makes what sounds like a stirring speach. I crane my ears, but barely understand one word in ten. Where I do, my poor comprehension makes a hash of it, just as I think I’ve understood something about the weather and frozen bullocks, another hostess thrusts a menu in my direction.

The menu itself is richly coloured and thick, tome-like, but relatively foreigner friendly with a few pictures of key dishes. It makes me wonder if the “No English” rule is the personal dictate of our particular hostess, or something to do with a short staff on an unexpectedly busy weekday night. The whole encounter leaves us slightly flummoxed, and I probably look like a moron as I thumb back and forth through the menu, squinting and undecided.
It seems to be held axiomatic in North America, that where there are pictures on the menu, there is also poor food.
I disagree. Particularly in Chinese restaurants, where even if I can read the original language description, I’m somewhat mystified. As with many cuisines, Chinese dishes are often either evocatively or prosaically named—Tiger’s Nest or Black Pepper Beef, I’m never exactly sure what constitutes either, particularly as each restaurant has it’s own opinion. This particular night, in this particular scenario, I’m overwhelmed. I wish I had a highlight to circle what I wanted, or my Chinese electronic dictionary to decode some unfamiliar characters.

Our hostess hovers impatiently, and trying to break through her reserve, I ask for a suggestion. When she asks if we like spicy food, and we say yes, she smiles a little. We start to look forward to the meal as we place our order, black pepper steaks, Buddha’s fest, a gluten plate, and thick noodles. By the time the first course has come, we’ve managed enough chit-chat that we feel a little at home.

The black pepper beef arrives on a sizzling cast iron platter, the vegetables are bright and steaming in an aromatic clear sauce, and the noodles are as round and thick as the pen that insists on rolling off my desk as I type. It’s too bad the food turns things around again.

I wonder in hindsight if it’s my own fault. Sometimes I think simply looking like ‘an English’ means that people try and serve you the worst of British food, dry ‘meat’ and bland starch †.

Sadly, if the black pepper steak has the texture and flavour of meat (it does), I don’t like it. And doubt even a tyrannosaurus sized carnivore would either. Its analogue could only be the over-done rubber and grit texture of a steak taken well past “well-done” into doorstop territory. Threads of fibrous polymer seem to want to floss all of my teeth at once as I chew and chew, and aside from the pepper there is little flavour here. We each manage a small bite, and I want to eat more for politeness but just can’t manage. My partner is overwhelmed, after a small nibble she very delicately fishes a clump of partly masticated eraser out and puts it on the plate. I can’t blame her, and admire her discretion in the manoeuvre, which I’m certain no-one but myself is able to catch.

We’ve asked for the vegetable dish without cabbage, and I’m sad to see it still in, but chalk it up to miscommunication and dig in. I’d like to say that this dish is not bad, and it isn’t, exactly—but there is so very little there there. The clear sauce seems to be free of salt and despite the lovely smell has a hideous soapy flavour and texture that makes me wonder if it’s some one’s failed molecular gastronomy experiment. Worst of all, the bok choi is limpid. soft and dissolving while the virulently orange carrots are raw. I’ve never eaten at Panda Express, but this tastes what sad mall Chinese food looks like.

The noodles, they really are all right. The noodles themselves are in fact wonderful, perfect carbohydrates that roll deliciously about my mouth. But again the sauce and preparation disappoint. The black bean sauce seams to be missing any umami but for a few black chunks, and the dish is so bland, that for the first time ever, I consider asking for salt at a Chinese restaurant. I look up from my food and open my mouth—and the hostess who originally opened the door is staring at us through a scowl.

Having made eye contact she slams a bill down on the table and starts to take our plates.

I haven’t, and doubt we ever will, be back.

Two diamonds of six for noodles, and being one of the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurants. It’s a real shame that the food is simply not above average.

† Just a note to say I love real British food, shortcrust pies with artful fillings, simple pub fare like perfect chips, to local specialties like wild gathered samphire and savoury seasonings like juniper berry or walnut oil—British ingredients may be the last secret frontier of great cookery. Alas these things aren’t what people associate with my cultural heritage.

 


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§ 3 Responses to Gong De Lin Review"

  • nootherblogbythisname says:

    When I was living in Beijing in 1990/1991 and had a newborn, I somehow was referred to this restaurant. I think it was my cherished Ayi (nanny/housekeeper who was like a mother to me) who sent me there. I used to go there for long lunches with my baby, and a staff member would sit with me holding him and keeping me company for a few hours, explaining each dish that I was brought to eat. It was a wonderful respite and I went often. I rarely ever saw any other foreigners there and I never brought anyone there myself. It was explained to me that it was a Buddhist restaurant, hence vegetarian, so I didn't want to make it 'popular' and knew no other Buddhists besides myself. The staff were always happy to see my and little red-haired Kai Kai. The most memorable dish I had was a fish made out of mashed potatoes. It looked real, right down to the staring eyeball. The fins were made out of various mushrooms. Incredible…and very tasty besides. In those days the trash was a burn-pit in the kitchen, and sure enough, when I had to change a diaper, I was shown to the kitchen and instructed to toss the old one in the fire…I tried to explain, but they insisted. (After that, I brought cloth diapers.)

  • Gong De Lin is one of my favourite restaurant so far. You know I pass my maximum leisure time in Australia though I live in NY. In there, I always go Gong De Lin restaurant which is really a good place for serving.

  • Yes, that was great! Thank you for adding those materials here. I guess that I would like to see here more of your future writings.

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