The Boston Phoenix
April 23 - 30, 1998

[Dining Out]

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Who needs meat when you've got wheat-gluten pork?

Dining Out by Robert Nadeau

1 North Beacon Street, Allston
(617) 254-8883
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Di, MC, Visa
No liquor
Sidewalk-level access

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.

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 stir-fry sauce.

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 stands.

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

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