Review

Vanimal

Vanimal feature1

Fa Zu Jie’s Paul Hui puts the fun into vegetarian food with hearty and imaginative plant-based dishes.

Text by Tiffany Chan, food photos by Joe Kwong

*Featured in Crave’s April 2016 issue

Nestled in the booming part of once-sleepy Kennedy Town, Vanimal’s owner Paul Hui describes the restaurant’s name as an animal-like appetite for plant-based cuisine. Hui is also the owner of much-loved French-Shanghainese private kitchen Fa Zu Jie, off Lan Kwai Fong. Although the vegetarian concept is very different, he says it came naturally to him.

“Half a year after I started Fa Zu Jie, a table of vegetarians dined with us. One woman told me: ‘I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 years but this is one of the best meals I’ve had’. I thought I must have done something right,” he says. “Later, we had different kinds of vegetarians come in – Buddhist vegetarians, Indian vegetarians – and I always knew something could be done.”

But Hui’s plant-based cuisine is not necessarily about clean eating. His small but expanding tapas-style menu has dishes such as vegetarian tempura with fermented bean curd powder, mixed bean croquettes with turnip powder, and mixed vegetable paella to share. Diners are encouraged to pick from a “daily catch” of seasonal vegetables in a display cabinet. The vegetables are purified with ozone water, allowing their natural sweetness and flavour to come through. The idea is to make vegetables as inspiring as a cut of meat, with the raw ingredients, technique and style of cooking.

“Vegetarian food is healthy – this doesn’t need to be emphasised. If a friend tells you to eat vegetarian tonight, you’d think it was a sacrifice, that you must somehow torture yourself to be healthy. This needs to change,” Hui says. “Hong Kong is very backwards when it comes to plant-based cuisine. We need to have a restaurant where the vegetarian experience is exciting and fun.”

And fun it is. The décor is as eclectic and modern as the food. At the entrance is a long timber sculpture of “Vanimal”, a mythical dinosaur, while the dining room’s centrepiece is a long irregular table with hefty, stone age-inspired chairs. A neon feature wall backs an open bar lined with jars of pickles and speciality drinks.

“To have people come in and say they don’t feel like they’ve just had a vegetarian meal – that would be the biggest compliment,” Hui says.

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1. House Pickles

The restaurant offers more than 10 types of house-made pickles and is constantly experimenting. A vibrant array of pickled vegetables are served on a platter, including bitter melon with dried longan and goji berries, carrots, cucumber, Japanese burdock root, lotus root tinged pink with beetroot juice and, curiously, mango chunks. The preserved vegetables vary in sourness and make a fitting pre-dinner snack to whet the appetite.


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2. Mushroom Beurre Blanc

Cep and shiitake mushrooms are lightly tossed in beurre blanc sauce and topped with a slow-cooked Japanese egg and home-made Jerusalem artichoke chips. The buttery mushrooms and runny egg were an earthy combination with the paper-thin chips adding much-needed texture. We would have preferred small pieces for balance, and for all the elements in fit in one bite, but we liked the lightness of the dish, despite the buttery sauce.


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3. Shiitake Mushroom Sandwich

Shiitake mushrooms and brie are sandwiched between crostini crisps and pan-fried to create a sandwich so thin that it’s more like a thick, layered chip. A light drizzle of oral honey adds dimension and completes the dish. The earthy mushroom, creamy brie and golden, crispy bread make a nice bite-sized snack, even if it was a bit too greasy for us. If each crisp were supersized into a true sandwich, it would be more satisfying.


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4. Saffron Lime Curry

When the saffron lime curry arrived, it was so fragrant we were licking our lips
from across the table. The curry contained poached carrots, caramelised onions and spongy kau fu, or braised wheat gluten, and a liberal splash of lime that added acidity and lifted the dish. We especially liked the meaty texture of the kau fu and the delicious topping of home-made flatbread, which resembled pita chips. We did find ourselves missing the richness of a traditional curry.


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5. Vanimal Paella

Vanimal uses a morel and bean stock base to give a delicious meaty flavour to the paella. The chef uses Taiwanese short-grain rice instead of Spanish long-grain rice, which is al dente and packed with flavour from the protein-packed earthy stock. We dug around for what vegetables of every kind – fresh lily bulbs, carrot, radish, ribbons of asparagus and fried lotus-root chips. We loved scraping the crispy rice from the pan to finish. The paella must be ordered in advance.


Vanimal
Shop 1, Cadogan, 150 Belcher’s Street, Kennedy Town
Tel: 2872 8880

 

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