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Restaurant Offers Food for Vegans and Synchronicity, Too

February 13, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"I feel energized," remarked one of my New Age friends, digging into her bowlful of vegan hot pot at Gourmet Vegetarian. "You're experiencing synchronicity," said another in our group with a nod, obviously delighted with the fresh flavors.

Vegans, I should mention, are very systematic vegetarians who avoid not only meat but all animal-derived foods, such as eggs and dairy products. I must admit I seem to lack the sensitivity to experience New Age feelings such as synchronicity, but I do know tasty food when I am eating it. Pass the gluten, please.

The guiding light behind Gourmet Vegetarian's food is Paulette Vu, a woman of Vietnamese and French parentage who practices a form of Buddhism that forbids her to eat meat or dairy products of any kind. Looking at her healthy glow, I feel like rushing over to the nearest doctor's office for a treadmill test.

Vu's cooking draws heavily from Buddhist traditions in her native Vietnam. Many of these dishes are vegetarian substitutes for traditional Vietnamese fare. Gluten and tofu replace meat and fish, and seasonings lean heavily to herbs such as lemon grass and ginger.

Walking into this modest storefront, you aren't exactly looking for miracles. One half is a rather humble market--the shelves are nearly bare--stocked with such things as egg substitutes and ersatz burger mixes, precisely the products that would scare off a timid visitor. The other half is the dining area, a bright room of glass-topped tables and pink walls. These walls, incidentally, are embellished by posters of a female monk named Ching Hai, Vu's spiritual master and herself the glowing portrait of enlightened health.

If you are like most people here, you'll begin with a refreshing glass of pulpy juice, squeezed to order from such fruits as Chinese pears, Fuji apples, oversized tangerines or bunched carrots. All these fruits and a considerable number of vegetables stare out at you from the glass-doored refrigerator across the room. Yes, yes . . . synchronicity.

You don't have to order off the menu, by the way. Vu's bountiful buffet is recommended for those who know their way around this kind of food. It's a steam table setup stocked with fried rice, steamed buns, vegetable curries and braised tofu, and it is available every day until 7 p.m. Eat all you can, but don't waste. If you leave any excess food on your plate, you are obliged to pay a politically correct surcharge of $1.

Appetizers are the most resolutely Vietnamese part of the regular menu. Oriental tamale (intriguingly spelled tamali) is a twist on a typical Vietnamese starter, a diaphanous rice flour crepe rolled around julienned bamboo and carrot. It's delicious, especially when eaten with the house nuoc mam--in this case, of course, a vegetarian fish sauce.

You may know these spring rolls as cha gio, the dense Vietnamese version of egg rolls. Vu stuffs them with bean thread noodles and tiny bits of mock barbecued pork made from gluten, then crisps them up without excess oil. ("Whenever I eat in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant," she says, "they use so much oil I get sick.")

If you really want to be dazzled by technique, try the pupu platter, served for either one or two. This is a small plate of "meats"--mock barbecued pork, duck and ham--all made from fresh soy and wheat gluten that Vu buys fresh daily from a purveyor in the San Gabriel Valley. The "duck" is particularly amazing, with a hard lacquer coating subtly infused with anise and ginger. Everything comes with a wonderful vegetarian oyster sauce made from mushrooms.

In truth, though, the soups and salads here are surely more nutritious than these gluten dishes, which probably appeal primarily to convinced vegans. (Gluten is a moderate source of protein, and not much else.)

The hot pot mentioned earlier is a slightly sour broth full of good fresh vegetables like bean sprouts, snow peas, black mushrooms and carrot, rounded out by slices of mock ham and cubes of fresh tofu. It's served in a flaming kettle. The star salad dish is called goi, the Vietnamese word for lotus. Vu makes it with shredded lotus root, cabbage and stir-fried peanut, all tossed with a sweet and sour dressing. The combination of three crunchy textures makes for an adventure with every forkful.

Some of the special dishes are adventurous, too. An off-menu special which she calls kung pao cuttlefish is a real curiosity. It's made with strangely rubbery cakes of grated yam cut into little strips, and it draws much of its flavor from white seaweed. You'd swear that you were eating real cuttlefish. (A spicy brown sauce cut with peanuts is the basis for all kung pao dishes here, including kung pao tofu and kung pao gluten.)

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