40 Craig Road
Open for lunch and dinner daily: 11.30am to 3pm; 6pm to 9.30pm
Open your mind.
It smells like someone mopped the place with wet seaweed.
It’s earthy. It’s a mossy, natural scent.
There’s too many vegetables staring at me. They know I eat meat. They’re judging me.
They want to enlighten you.
(Sharp whisper) They’re – vegetarian!
You can have chicken wings later.
And bak kwa?
Forgive the inner voices battling each other as we step gingerly into the meat-free zone of Ganglamedo, a restaurant that serves vegetarian cuisine in a three-storey house you might expect a high-net-worth Tibetan to live in.
Entire walls are covered in an artistic installation of prayer bells. Assorted artefacts are scattered around the three levels, much like the ornate living space of an ardent collector. In fact, it has so few tables it looks more like an accidental restaurant started by someone with too much dining furniture, than an actual business.
Ganglamedo, or “snow lotus” in Tibetan, seems to be about guiding you on a different path – if not to Nirvana then at least a happy place sans McDonald’s. It wants to prove that it can make vegetables tasty enough without mock or real meat, and that you will leave without missing either.
It is therefore not your typical Buddhist vegetarian food. Think a mash-up of Ma La hot pot, shabu shabu, Italian and Salad Stop served with a liberal dollop of Tibetan culture and Zen soundtrack.
You can go vegetarian or hardcore vegan here, but the star attraction is the ornate (as is everything in this place), intricately designed enamel-like hotpot – unlike the conventional steel communal pot – around which the menu is designed. You basically pick from either a five course set priced at S$49.90, or a more luxe Cordyceps version for S$88, and an ala carte section of mostly side dishes.
While Tibetan-Chinese in principle, the chef is Singaporean – sent for a five month training stint at a supposedly well known Tibetan restaurant in China. His brief was to learn the basics of the cuisine, but to reinterpret it in his own way.
With some mild apprehension, we survey the deluge of small plates that land on our table as part of the five course vegetarian and cordyceps sets. First, there are two interesting condiments to go with the hot pot – a tongue tingling dried chilli oil-laced mixture of assorted crunchy seeds; and chopped pieces of dried mushroom mixed with chilli and peanuts. Both are potent and quite addictive.
You can prepare your palate with a refreshing bowl of mixed grapes, cherry tomatoes and blueberries showered with shaved macadamia nut. Then you can explore a cold cucumber roll, meticulously made with wafer thin slices of cucumber wrapped around a filling of shredded carrots, savoury enoki mushrooms and (with the more expensive set) orange cordycep flowers. They don’t look like the crinkly “worms” used in traditional Chinese medicine, but they have similar fortifying qualities. The vegetable rolls get a good punch from drops of chilli oil that lurk innocently on the plate, hitting you when you least expect it.
We soon wise up, being careful to allow just a dab of it to accent a chewy crackly snack of wafer-thin spinach pancake wrapped around a stick of dried bean curd that is a surprisingly good match. If you fancy a bit of carbo, there is sesame mochi bread(S$8) from the ala carte – chewy, gluten-free balls made with glutinous rice flour, that you dip in mayonnaise. That doesn’t sit as well with us as the tasty home-made bean curd (S$20) fried to look like a hash brown, served with a whole morel mushroom that you nibble on.
So far so intriguing, but the true winner of the meal is the double-boiled Naqu cordyceps soup, brewed without any meat stock but tasting just as good. It’s a robust stock of Chinese truffle and matsutake mushrooms, amped up with cordyceps and bamboo pith. It feels almost like good karma coasting through your veins, if you want to be dramatic about it.
Mushrooms figure strongly in the broths, along with root vegetables such as carrots and pumpkin, and onions. For the hot pot, there are several choices of broth. The hot and spicy version gets you coughing and spluttering but has more character, so the vegetables and tofu that are cooked in it don’t get boring.
The Tibetan tea and king oyster mushroom broth also has its merits. It doesn’t taste like tea – it’s a delicate truffle enhanced broth that also infuses the greens with flavour. Add a bit of the spicy hotpot condiments and it’s really quite good.
Chewy mushroom rice ends the vegetarian set, but the second winner apart from the cordyceps soup is homemade noodles tossed in Chinese truffle oil that would be a proud addition to any Italian eatery.
Dessert is simply too alien for us – a lamington-like square of bland pumpkin glutinous rice cake covered in a confetti of cereal flakes. A golden “paste” of pumpkin cream topped with peach “gum” somehow tastes more like something you use for sealing envelopes than dessert.
From our fish-out-of-water sensation at the beginning to a nice, comfortable familiarity at the end, we have to say that Ganglamedo has something going for it. Maybe it’s the chilli, or the slight oiliness of the food, but we didn’t feel like we needed anything else to complete the meal. Ice cream perhaps, but nothing a vegetarian would be dismayed over.
Ok, we think a lot more people should check it out just for the experience. We didn’t love it, but we could appreciate what it’s trying to do. So we’re not quite reborn vegetarians, but we can safely say that some chicken wings were spared that day.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.