Friday, 6 June 2008

Green Garden - vegetarian Chinese restaurant

I lived in Oxford for three years, and acquired a heavy dependence on The Pink Giraffe . This Chinese restaurant isn't even entirely vegetarian, but does an amazing vegetarian/vegan menu. It's so very vegan-friendly that they flag up the non-vegan items with a hash sign. I have to stop myself when I start to think about the mock duck pancakes with their crispy cucumber and tangy sauce. Oh dear, it's too late. When my mum came to visit me in Oxford, she would always treat me and a friend (and herself) to lunch here, and we both reminisce about the all-you-can-eat menu with a tear in our eye.

I never thought I was much of a fan of Chinese food until I discovered The Pink Giraffe. Back in Stoke, I could rarely get anything other than tired old sweet and sour vegetables, in a gloopy bright orange sauce. Thank God for big cities, eh?

On to my point. Paris has its own offering for vegetarian lovers of Chinese food: Green Garden. The place is entirely lacto-vegetarian. No meat, and no eggs.

This Chinese restaurant is in the 13th arrondissement (métro (line 7), bus (PC2), or tram (T3) Porte d'Ivry. Or métro Olympiades (line 14) at a push. This is Chinatown. On the next street along, you'll really see Chinatown proper - the wonderful Frères Tang hypermarket and many Chinese and other east Asian restaurants. Green Garden is on rue Nationale.

Before I visited the place, I'd read lots of online reviews - most of which tried to put me off. In particular, there were reports of rude serving staff. That's a problem I've never encountered here. The ambiance is rather staid, and the decor very minimalist, but I've eaten at Green Garden many times and enjoyed it. I do regret the fact that they don't serve any alcohol, though. It's as pure as the decor, and they proudly proclaim on the window that there are no genetically modified ingredients used in the cooking. Or is it no monosodium glutamate? Or both?

The menu is pretty long, and entirely vegetarian. I do have one concern: I've read online that milk goes into their fake meat products. This would explain why they're not marked as vegan on the menu. There are, however, several vegetable-based dishes that are definitely vegan. There's also a little note on the menu telling you that dishes can be veganised upon request. The waiter always happily nods and says 'oui' when you ask him to do so, but I'm sceptical. Given how rare milk is in Chinese cooking, and that there's nothing in these recipes that could possibly contain any dairy products - apart from the mock meat - I'm not sure how vegan they are. I solve this problem by sticking to the items that are marked as vegan on the menu.

The food itself is good if unusual. The first time I ate in a Chinese restaurant in France (back in 2004 in Evreux, Normandy), I had to content myself with plain stir-fried broccoli and plain boiled rice. The waitress had laughed out loud when I suggested the possibility of sweet and sour vegetables... So I'm not sure if the unfamiliar quality of the food at Green Garden is a French influence (as is the case with Indian restaurants in France), or if it's that this restaurant is authentically Chinese. There's certainly a lot of Asian customers on any given evening here. Asian customers and hippy customers, and not many other customers. Sadly, this restaurant is often quite empty.

Good food - although unfamiliar-, fun area to explore, cheap as chips, 100% vegetarian. No alcohol, might be tricky for vegans.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Aquarius

I thought I'd start by telling you about the first vegetarian restaurant I visited in Paris. It's called Aquarius, and is in the 14th arrondissement. Here's a map. You'll need métro Pernety or Plaisance, on line 13. It's just south of Montparnasse.

The reason why this was my first vegetarian Parisian restaurant is that I used to live ten minutes' walk away. It's in a nice area (I'm hoping to go back there when I move house), with plenty of bars for pre- or post-dinner drinks. It's one of the oldest vegetarian restaurants in Paris, and you can occasionally tell.

Let's start with the basics. Everything is vegetarian, which is comforting. They have pots of nutritional yeast along with the salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar on the table. The waitresses are stunningly beautiful and pleasingly bonkers. The chap who owns the place is in there most nights, and is quite a character. He may well have been the first French vegetarian back in the day. He'll probably pretend to be disgustingly rude to you - he's just joking. I happen to find him very funny, and we've had big long discussions about the merits of veganism, the state of modern farming, and the French obsession with meat. He's fabulous, but does enjoy winding people up - especially American tourists. Impish.

Now for the food. It's not bad at all. For vegetarians, it's positively a treat. Stars of the menu include a mushroom pastry malarkey which I'm told is amazing, and the 'Couscous royale'. Now, my boyfriend is not only French but also an omnivore who loves couscous with all the trimmings. He says this is the best couscous he's ever eaten - meaty or not - and he's eaten a lot of them. They also do vegetarian versions of French classics like tartiflette (a creamy, cheesy, melty potato concoction).

For vegans, the choice is rather limited. Veganism is relatively new and extremely rare in France. There's a choice of two hot dishes and two salads (at the time of writing):

  • L'assiette indienne: the Indian plate. British people beware - this is nothing like a curry you'd get at home, but it's still nice. You get a TVP (extremely mild) curry dish, lentils, fancy rice, a raita made with soy cream, toasted cashews, and I forget what else. Pretty good, and it's often part of the cheap set meal.
  • Le chili sin carne: it's good, but not at all spicy. A bean and seitan chili, served with skewered seitan. No rice, which is almost as much of a pity as the lack of spice.
  • La salade du pêcheur: fisherman's salad. If you like seaweed, this is for you. Four or five different types of seaweed, along with various tasty salad bits like avocado and grapefruit slices. I'm not keen on the fishy taste of most seaweeds, so had a hard time with some of it.
  • La salade orientale. Great! Like a lebanese mezze plate with salad to boot! My favourite dish here.
There are a fair few vegan starters, like a delicious champignons à la grecque. Very rarely are there vegan puddings, but you lacto-ovo types will have fun! I do feel that there are quite a lot of dishes on the menu that could easily be veganised... Things as simple as using oil rather than butter, or pastry made with margarine, or avoiding using egg as a binder quite so often. That said, they do try!

Also worth mentioning is the 'formule'. In the evening, you can get two courses (either starter + main or main + dessert) for 15€. Bargain! The dishes included in the deal are written up on a black board that the waitress will bring you. Vegans are generally offered the Assiette indienne as a main, and usually just a compôte (apple purée) for pudding, but the starters change quite a lot.

If you choose to order from the main menu, expect to pay about 6€ for a starter, 10-15€ for a main course, and 6€ for a dessert.

Finally, the wine. It's good and cheap. Order a 'pichet bio', which is a jug of organic wine - at the same price as the non-organic stuff. It's about 8€ if I remember correctly (I may not... we tend to have more than one).

As with almost everywhere in Paris, service is theoretically included in the price of the meal. However, it's polite to leave a bit of a tip (say 5 - 10%) if the service was good and you enjoyed your food. You have to go up to the till to pay, but they're cool about splitting the cost and letting some people pay by card and others with cash.

Great for vegetarians, ok for vegans, not too expensive, cheap wine, bit health-foody, great staff, cute location.

Good afternoon

That was easy!

Now then. I noticed a while ago that there's a gaping hole on the internet. As far as I can tell, there's very little in English about the strange existence of vegans in Paris. There's precious little in French, for that matter.

I'm going to try to plug the hole, and hope that this plug might come in handy to some people. I'd like to tell you about restaurants, fast food places, and things to avoid or gravitate towards when you're doing your own shopping. Maybe I'll even tell you a little about the food I cook at home., and help out with French translations.

That's enough preamble, eh?