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Thien Phat raises the stakes for vegan dining

The pagoda-inspired cuisine will delight both vegetarians and their carnivorous companions. Nguyen Khanh Chi reports.

Faking it: Thien Phat restaurant's extensive menu of around 100 vegetarian dishes offers customers plenty of options, including many meat substitutes.
Faking it: Thien Phat restaurant’s extensive menu of around 100 vegetarian dishes offers customers plenty of options, including many meat substitutes.

My decision to visit a newly opened vegetarian restaurant in downtown Ha Noi turned out to be a smart and rewarding one.

The appealing, delicious vegetarian dishes and the tranquil ambience at the Thien Phat restaurant lured me again and I ended up lunching there thrice within two weeks.

Located at the far end of Ly Thuong Kiet Street near the city’s railway station, the restaurant’s relatively simple exterior might not attract much notice. However, the elegant and cosy place might look very expensive, but is not really so.

For me, every visit is a chance to taste new options from the extensive menu which lists around 100 vegetarian dishes, including “fake meat”.

My friend and I first ordered VND300,000 (US$14) worth of mien xao cua be (stir-fried vermicelli with crab meat made from tofu and green bean), nam kho (braised mushrooms), cha la lot (minced vegetarian pork in wild betel leaves) and stir-fried water spinach or morning glory, and it was a satisfactory meal. While mien xao cua be (VND65,000 or $3 per portion) can be enjoyed as an individual dish, it is best to have nam kho with fragrant rice.

Frankly speaking, it’s hard to single out any particular dish. All these dishes are highly recommended as we didn’t leave any leftovers. Though we felt too full to even stand up, there was an unforgettable refreshing feeling and no aftertaste of greasy food on my tongue.

“You should try cha la lot (which is VND65,000 for a plate of six finger-sized pieces),” I told my sister as I took her out for a lunch some days later.

It’s a soft, well-seasoned stuffing wrapped in crunchy betel-wild leaves and then stir-fried. The leaves taste nutty and grassy, complementing the strong flavours of the other ingredients.

However, as cha oc (fried snail paste) made with King oyster mushroom and betel leaves is our favourite dish, we chose that to go with ga sot chanh leo (chicken with passion fruit sauce). It couldn’t have been better as we let the salty flavours fill our empty stomachs slowly, while we sipped cool and fresh boiled maize drinks.

To balance the meal, we chose sup bat tien (an eight-flavour soup) and nom thap nhi nhan duyen (a salad made of 12 different vegetables).

Freshly grilled: Ca tim nuong lac thom (grilled aubergine with peanuts) is one of many highlights.

The eye-catching arrangement of green, red, yellow and white cuts of bell peppers, pineapple, bean sprouts, carrots and lotus rootstock on a white rectangular dish was complete when combined with a sour, sweet and salty sauce.

“Many customers like to pick the salad as their starter. It originates from a similar dish in the former royal capital city of Hue, but we use ingredients available here in Ha Noi,” said chef Nguyen Van Ninh, who has cooked vegetarian food for five years.

“Most of our dishes have fresh and seasonal vegetables. At first we designed a menu of around 100 dishes. But we adjusted it following customers’ recommendations,” Ninh said.

Thien Phat Vegetarian Restaurant

Add 1: 91 Ly Thuong Kiet Str,

Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi

Tel: 043 9410584

Add 2: 16 Hang Hanh Str,

Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi

Tel: 043 9380155

Open daily: 9am-2pm; 4pm-9pm

He spent years cooking and tasting vegetarian dishes at pagodas where he learnt from nuns and monks before he worked in vegetarian restaurant kitchens.

“From my own experience, a dish will be fully satisfactory to customers if it is prepared with enthusiasm and passion. And I always look forward to comments from diners to perfect our delicacies,” he said.

The white five-storey restaurant, filled with dark brown wood tables and chairs, offers an ideal and cool “getaway” meal for any diner. Additionally, the soft lighting, harmonious music and walls decorated with framed wooden pictures of stone patterns provide a quiet and restful atmosphere.

“The mushroom soup was a highlight while the aubergine and peanuts were amazing. I will visit again soon. I loved it. It’s the best vegetarian restaurant that I have tried in Ha Noi. The staff was incredibly helpful,” said a middle-aged Hanoian.

“There is some very good innovative food here. We especially enjoyed the grilled aubergine with peanuts (ca tim nuong lac thom), VND60,000] and tofu stuffed with lotus seeds. It’s smart inside. The staff is friendly, though they speak limited English. It’s a bit expensive compared with the other places but is worth it,” a foreign customer said.

As the restaurant’s manager revealed, another branch of the restaurant is expected to open soon in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter. Regular diners will have another place to stop by and discover something new, besides the two current locations on Ly Thuong Kiet and Hang Hanh streets.

I am not a vegan, but love to have vegetarian food in between heavy non-vegetarian meals. Surely, the restaurant is worth more than just three visits.