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Whenever I meet a vegetarian, I can't help but feel bad for them. While they're proudly explaining how no animals had to be killed for their consumption or touting the health benefits of their diet, I nod in understanding - but really I'm lamenting lost joys of the delightful crunch of bacon or the perfect juiciness of a burger.
A new downtown Norwich restaurant aims to bridge some of the gap. Kong Foo Vegetarian Restaurant, which opened late last year, offers a whole host of meats that vegetarians can enjoy. Confused? We were, on a recent trip, perusing the menu, which features beef, chicken, pork, lamb, shrimp and more. Some of the dishes are labeled as "veg," but not all.
So, sitting in the large open room, where the walls are painted with mountains and lotus flowers, we sipped our tea and eyed the food at other tables. After some whispered debate, we finally asked our server, "This isn't real meat, right?"
With a chuckle he said no, their "meat" is made from soy and mushrooms. We had our doubts as real-meat-lovers, but we tried to keep an open mind.
Kong Foo promotes on its menu "eating for a life of wellness and longevity" and subscribes to the Buddhist way of life, as its owner also owns two restaurants in New York City called Buddha Bodai. Kong Foo and the NYC restaurants are also certified kosher.
An article on the New York restaurant in the New York Daily News explained their process to make, for example, fake chicken - blending tofu, cornstarch and spices in a blender with mushroom stems, and then baking it. Customers have generally given it rave reviews online.
Unlike most Asian restaurants, Kong Foo's tables are devoid of soy sauce, hot sauce, or any sauce for that matter. Aside from that, and the fake meat thing, the menu looks fairly familiar, with dishes like General Tso's chicken, wonton soup and a range of noodle and vegetable dishes.
We first tried dumplings ($4.95), which were steamed and filled with a mix of spiced minced vegetables and "shrimp." We had to admit, we might not have noticed the shrimp wasn't real, though we did miss a dipping sauce.
Our favorite dish, recommended by our server, was the taro bowl delight ($13.95), in which the taro (a starchy root vegetable) is fried and formed into a bowl that is a nice balance of soft and crispy. The bowl is filled with various "meats" in a flavorful, slightly sweet marinade. We started arguing about what meat was supposed to be what, but then decided to just enjoy it. We did ask the server about the tastiest one, which he identified as lamb, saying people tell them the flavor is almost exact.
We thought the pan fried noodle in Buddha's Bodai style ($11.75) would be a good signature dish, but it was bland. We didn't love that the noodles were crunchy and the whitish-clear sauce over the vegetables was gelatinous.
Without the proper condiments, we decided we had to go back to sample a few "spicy" dishes, but ultimately they weren't overly spicy at all. The Ma Poa tofu ($8.95) was made up of cubes of soft tofu in a dark, bean-based sauce served with rice on the side with a hint of heat. We asked for a noodle recommendation, hoping to improve upon our previous noodle dish, and tried the twin noodles with vegetarian chicken in sacha sauce ($11.75). The noodles were thin, both clear and opaque, tossed with bok choy and thin slices of chicken that tasted pretty close to the real thing. The soybean oil-based sauce was not very spicy but it provided some good flavor.
While we aren't vegetarians, we can see how Kong Foo would be a good option for those with normally limited menu options. We also learned fake meat can be surprisingly tasty, though I'm still happy I get to eat the real thing.
KONG FOO VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
85-91 Main St., Norwich
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Cuisine: Asian vegetarian
Atmosphere: Open atrium in a downtown building, clean and casual
Prices: Most dishes $6.95 to $13.95
Service: A bit slow on a Friday night but friendly
Credit cards: All majors