Who needs meat when you've got wheat-gluten pork?
Dining Out by Robert Nadeau
My usual line of questioning about restaurant names -- how come there
aren't any grasshoppers on the menu? -- doesn't apply here. Grasshopper is
about eating like a grasshopper, if one can imagine an Asian vegan
grasshopper who lusts for spring rolls made with taro root instead of pork and
shrimp or for gluten made to resemble pork or shrimp. The idea will be familiar
and tasty to anyone who has frequented the two Buddha's Delight restaurants,
but even these diners will be pleasantly surprised by the elegance and
excellence of this place, so long as they don't expect too much from the ersatz
shrimp. This Grasshopper may not store away riches, but it certainly enjoys a
fresh vegetable and a lively sauce.
1 North Beacon Street, Allston |
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Di, MC, Visa
These false meats are the height of feast catering in China, and they will at
least amuse Buddhists from elsewhere (as well as high-caste Hindus, modern
Orthodox Jews, Muslims on the road, and, of course, other dedicated vegetarians
looking for a place where they don't have to pick through the menu). But what
counts here is respect for vegetables themselves, some neat sauces, and
terrific jasmine rice. There is also some serious noodle action.
The major creative problem in Vietnamese and Chinese vegetarianism isn't
replacing the small amounts of meat or fish in various stir-fries, although
that is a problem. The real dilemma is finding good substitutes for meaty
stocks and condiments like oyster sauce and Vietnamese fish sauce and shrimp
paste. Here Grasshopper has succeeded exceptionally well. For fried vegetarian
spring rolls ($3), the answer to no shrimp or meat is to add the nutty richness
of taro. Nuoc cham, the fish-based Vietnamese dipping sauce, is faked
effectively with the sugar, vinegar, and hot pepper of the original, along with
salt and scallions to replace the fish sauce. It's a lighter dip, but still
effective. For an authentically Vietnamese experience in regard to a platter
like vermicelli noodle with spring rolls ($7), the trick is to provide plenty
of salad and fresh mint leaves, as well as the thin rice noodles and spring
rolls, minus pork and shrimp and fish sauce.
Fried vegetable dumplings ($4.50) are Peking ravioli, again with taro
replacing pork, and again with a Vietnamese dip rather than the Chinese
soy-garlic-pepper dip, which could be done here. Barbecued vegi-pork ($4.50) is
cut into squares and topped with chopped peanuts; the toothier texture of this
kind of gluten is somewhat evocative of roast pork.
Some dinners come with soup and rice, and others can come with these
accompaniments for an additional $2. The rice is excellent -- real Thai jasmine
rice made perfectly. Nicely cooked brown rice is also available. The soup can
be truly remarkable. Most of our complimentary soups were hot-and-sour ($3.50
by itself), which here tastes like a cross between Szechwan hot-and-sour soup
and Polish-Jewish cabbage soup. The spices, yellow garlic chives, lily buds,
and cloud ears are unmistakably Chinese, but the sweet cabbage flavor
underneath evokes not East Asia but Eastern Europe. Another soup we had, a
white soup with cabbage and curious glutinous masses (vegi-cauliflower?), was
even more delicious, with a notable illusion of meat stock underneath. A larger
bowl of soup had daikon and carrot, so it looked like chicken soup from the
same Polish-Jewish grandma but had a fresh, light, peppery flavor of its own.
Chow foon noodle ($8) was the real thing, those fabulous Cantonese hand-cut
soft noodles done up with snow peas and carrots and celery slices and your
choice of ersatz meats. I would not have the vegi-shrimp again, as it is
tasteless, reddened stuff that looks like kibbled pet food -- Purina vegan
chow. Two kinds of noodles with assorted vegetables ($9) were prettier and
better -- undercooked broccoli and snow peas along with rubbery vegi-pork and
good fried tofu strips in a brownish sauce over yellow and white fettuccini.
My favorite of the combination dishes, though, was the "House Nest" ($11.95),
a taro basket full of vegetables such as napa cabbage and mushrooms and five
kinds of fake meat, notably the stringy vegi-chicken and red-edged
"vegi-boneless ribs." The basket itself is actually woven of extruded taro
straw and deep-fried freshly enough to be enjoyable with or without the
For real flavor, the vegi-beef with Chinese broccoli ($7) was thick with dark
and delicious mushrooms, a brown sauce that worked as a decent counterfeit of
the usual oyster sauce, and the wonderfully sweet Chinese broccoli. I was also
quite high on spicy curry lemongrass vegi-pork ($7) for its sauce, which made
rich and spicy use of the citronella aroma of lemongrass over chewy strips of
"pork" gluten and a lot of red and green bell peppers.
At lunch, when everything is $4.75, you can get into most of these flavors, or
just enjoy rice, hot-and-sour soup, and stir-fried vegetables with shrimp and
spring roll, all of a quality heretofore unimaginable in Boston, even during
the '70s macrobiotic era when the city had four and five vegetarian restaurants
at a time.
Grasshopper intends to add more American-style dishes. I don't know if the
cooks will base these on vegetables or continue in the imitation vein with
veggie-burgers and tofu hot dogs. I think they should add sushi, Thai curries,
or Korean food if they add anything, but this is a very good menu as it
Tea is jasmine and reasonably strong -- green jasmine at lunch, darker tea
with jasmine at dinner a few days later.
The service was excellent on two early visits, before the restaurant developed
much of a crowd. I stayed pretty much on my Passover diet eating dinner there
on Easter Sunday, when few restaurants are open.
Grasshopper also benefits from a very well-decorated space. Black tables and
chairs have a Japanese elegance, do the beach stones used as chopstick rests.
On each table is a little pot of moss with a beach stone, and most of the
tables are lit at night with either wrought-iron candlesticks or those trendy
little lamps with shades made of amberoid beads. The decor includes a tank with
very small fish, botanical illustrations on the wall, and a few pet plants.
They would never eat those.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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