Pure Lotus Review

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Beijing Header ImagePure Lotus
Holiday Inn Lido Beijing, 3rd Floor (Jichang Rd & Jiag Tai Rd)

净心莲 [ 朝阳首都机场蒋台路丽都假日饭店三层 ]

$100 for two, with silver-tip jasmine tea

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

I’m in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, but it’s like no other Holiday Inn I have been to before. Opulent. Marble floors and panelled white walls, deep upholstery, a business centre that’s actually doing business, and all around me an expatriate complex rises up into the sky. A red faced man in a linen suit with a Harvard pin is shouting horrible Mandarin into a cellphone the size of a thimble, and I’m sliding my bank card into a bank machine after waiting in a line that curled up the hall.

Could I be anywhere in the world? Perhaps. But as the machine spits out Yuan from my Canadian bank account, this is all so distinctly one of the new Beijings—a business district built at the city’s edge to facilitate western business moving into China, a glossy new version of a hotel chain that might be mediocre anywhere else in the world, and a palpable buzz in the air that makes one feel as though they are truly near the centre of the Earth.

I’ve travelled here a rather large distance by train and taxi to eat at Pure Lotus, which is perhaps the most (literally) spectacular restaurant in China. I feel a sense of anticipation and apprehension, for although I can’t deny the authenticity of this monied milieu-it’s not one I associate with great food. Thankfully, I’m in for a huge surprise…

I ride a mirrored elevator up a story or two, and step forward into a dreamscape. Servers in brightly colored robes wait to greet us. The restaurant uniform is cultish, but undeniably cool, halfway between Buddhist Monk and Kung Fu hero. The first sports a neat bob and robes of cotton-candy pink, while the other has a punk haircut that climbs at least a foot toward the ceiling. As he walks us through the crowded restaurant to our table, we pass a mixed crowd: locals and not, business people and socialites, booths, open tables, and curtained areas. The restaurant has a sort of wabi-sabi aesthetic, with rough wood set against gloss surfaces. Contemporary details like a metallic curtain are set directly against traditional service ware. Like a feng shui nightmare or a hallucination of a Buddhist temple the environment is a sensory intervention.

I’m taken aback, but I decide that I like it.

In some ways, vegans are a tough crowd. Theatrics, pomp, the outré outfits of the waiters—the dry ice used to make the bowls of mandarin oranges smoke—in other contexts might make a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star. Certainly rather dubious establishments have earned stars on such grounds in the past—but many of the vegetarians I have met disdain this particular type of theatrics entirely. We’re kind of alright with punk and DIY, the familiar roots of our scene, but risk being no-fun-eaters when it comes to fancy.

I can’t deny the cognitive dissonance of eating su—plain, or pure food—in such an overtly material circumstance, but there is a beauty here it’s hard to dismiss only as conspicuous consumption. The wild fairytale presentation mirrors the risk and daring of the food.

Give each of them a chance, and I challenge you not to be delighted.

Yes, it’s all a little bit over the top. Sure it’s even flashier than a  Lamorghini—but this is Chinese luxury to Chinese tastes: “Over the top” isn’t part of the lexicon. Pretentious isn’t part of the picture either, there is no pretense here, what you see is what you get: welcome to wonderland.

Before we procees, I think it’s worth examining our preconceptions and our reactions. We’re perfectly willing to accept the fact that other restaurants serve bottles of wine which are hundreds of dollars, but scoff at similarly expensive pots of tea. Both are items produced across a spectrum of conditions, from industrial conglomerates producing serviceable vintages en masse, to artisans lavishing copious amounts of effort and time on every single glass. There’s bound to be a difference. And just this once, I encourage you to splurge.

We open our menus to do so and there are pages upon pages of options, thick and cream—each one listing countless specialties. My advice: skip the obvious fake meat entirely. No black pepper beef, or spare ribs please, you can ge those almost anywhere in China, and the processes to make each particular variety are so codified that there is very little varience. Instead, select entrées based around tofu, gluten, noodles, and vegetables. Dish names tend toward the traditional, or whimsical—which means you may have to ask your server for some recommendations. The Lido branch generally will have someone on-hand who speaks English. If not, feel free to use a phrase book and/or point at what you want at someone else’s table—there is sure to be something that looks appealing. But also, the descriptions below each dish generally sum them up quite well. A little digging reveals treasure, many of the best dishes here have humble names and humble origins. For example, their steamed rice parcels served wrapped in lotus or other subtly flavoured leaves. Each one is delicious, and it’s rare to get perfectly cooked wild grains, or delicate mushroom flavours in such perfect Earthy harmony.

In fact, Pure Lotus may be my favourite place for fungus. Meals start with an umami amuse guele, pickled vegetables in a sprightly brine that perfetly primes the palatte for rich flavours. Jiaozi with shitake, maitake, and broth filling make a perfect second. With perfect thin walls and a juicy melt-in-your mouth centre, they’ll coat you with warmth from your gullet to your toes. An entrée combination of a simple vegetable dish—we pick one with lilly bulbs for their pallete cleansing qualities, and a spicy tofu dish to re-enliven your taste buds make perfect seconds, while rice parcels or noodles with just a hint of mushrooms allow you to dip back into a grounding earthiness and round a meal out. If you have the numbers (at least three or four, you’ve already ordered too much for two people), accompany the whole thing with soup, a sweet or sour tang, which is sure to be both beautiful and delicious. This may be the best place to introduce yourself to winter melon soup, with a distinctly Chinese tecture and flavour combination, it’s not for the faint of heart, but is supremely excellent. Even if you don’t order dessert, your meal will end with sweetness, as we’ve always recieved some seasonal fruit to close. Chances are it will be served in a cloud of roiling steam, ice cold and at perfect ripeness.

Whatever else might be said of it, Pure Lotus is wholly unique. It is the perfect place for a special occasion or a spectacular meal, and offers some of China’s best vegetarian cuisine. It’s at the peak—the bleeding  Lady Gaga edge—of vegetarian Chinese haute cuisine, and whether or not it offers the absolute best example of each dish on its menu, I’m glad its out there, pushing the boundaries and creating new visions. And I can’t wait to eat there again.

Intimidated by the thought of ordering in Mandarin, check out my Vegan in China Guide for some suggestions!

Notes:

Unlike other high-end restaurants, Pure Lotus has kept wine and spirits off the menu. Instead, an enormous variety of fresh juices and teas are on offer. If you select an umami pathway for your dinner, try a little pu-erh tea. Certainly not the most expensive if it’s your first time, as it may not be to your taste, but the fermented and aged taste of pu-erh is umami’s perfect complement. If you don’t like bitter or earth flavours a little silver-tip jasmine tea goes with everything.

 

If it all sounds like too much for you, there is a second branch of Pure Lotus. It’s stripped down and looks like many other nice restaurants. Black chairs and ivory tablecloths. To be honest, I still suggest the original. In the first, I think the food is better. In the second, the first restaurant is wholly friendly to English speaking visitors. While the other has English menus, staff may be less able to cope with complicated requests. It’s at Tongguang Building, 12 Nongzhanguan Nan Lu, Chaoyang district. [ 朝阳区农展馆南路12号通广大厦院内 ]

 

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