It looks like roast duck, doesn't it? We lean in closer and admire the golden crackle of thin crisp skin, marvelling at its beauty, because guess what, this dish is completely vegetarian.
I'd been drawn to Au Lac not just for its entirely vegetarian Vietnamese menu, but for its reputation at creating mock meat dishes. The idea of vegetarians eating mock meat may sound a little ironic but theories abound that mock meat was first developed by Buddhist monks to serve to visitors who were not necessarily vegetarian. The visitors could enjoy a "normal" looking meal of meat and vegetables without the monks breaking their beliefs.
We find Au Lac in Woolley Street, Dickson - Canberra's Chinatown located just north of the city centre. The restaurant is humble in decor, neatly set out with clean but dated furniture, and dotted throughout with bamboo ferns. There are couples, groups of friends, and yes, a serene monk in saffron robes who greets the owners with a warm handshake and a smile.
We start with a menu item called Vietnamese cannelloni that arrives as banh cuon. Traditionally these soft sheets of steamed rice noodles are swaddled around a filling of pork mince and minced wood ear mushroom. Here the meat has been replaced with soy meat, and the dried prawns that are usually on top have been substituted with flaky shreds of mushroom floss.
Soy meat is made by processing soy beans to extract the proteins, and combining this with wheat gluten to create a faux meat substitute. This entree provides an easy transition to the world of soy meat, and we savour the noodle parcels with splashes of sweet chill dressing.
Coconut juice $3.50
The paw paw salad is made with soy squid, refreshing shreds of daikon, carrot and mint mixed with thin sheets of fried soy meat. It doesn't taste much like squid, but the soy meat has a satisfying jerky-like chewiness.
Canh chua is a sweet and sour soup usually served with fatty chunks of silver perch. Ours is a feast of tomatoes, pineapple, enoki mushrooms and oyster mushrooms, and it arrives in a huge glass bowl that could double as a bath.
Au Lac broken rice $13
Com dac biet, or special rice, is a mainstay of Vietnamese restaurants that is often ordered by men looking for a supreme protein hit. It's an all-in-one meal of grilled pork chop, shredded pork, baked egg, fried egg, tomato and cucumber served with broken rice. The Au Lac version replaces the pork chop with marinated and grilled soy meat. Shredded tofu looks eerily similar to pork meat too.
The faux pork chop does feel a little springy but aside from the missing pork chop bone, I reckon you could easily fool a few carnivores with this dish.
The roast soy duck is by far the most impressive dish. Mr Manchego doesn't believe it's vegetarian, and is convinced they've let a meat dish out of the kitchen.
I pick up a piece and admire its construction. On top is a shell of glazed crispy skin but I'm taken aback by the construction beneath, starting with a creamy layer that looks like duck fat, and then continuing with distinct and separate layers that mimic the contours of a genuine duck breast.
The first mouthful is incredible, the mind fooled by the sight and texture of the "meat". By the fourth piece you can tell it's not really duck, but I still want more, no doubt buoyed by an addiction to the sweet and crunchy skin.
By the end of the dinner we feel satiated and buzzing with protein, as though we've eaten a dinner that did include meat. The only butchering we did that night was a heavy session of karaoke across the road.
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Canberra - Le Rendezvous (Italian)
Canberra - Mecca Bah (Moroccan)
Canberra - My's Vietnamese Restaurant (Vietnamese)
Canberra - Pancake Parlour (breakfast)
Canberra - Senso Restaurant (truffle lunch)
Canberra - Silo Bakery (bakery)
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3/25/2011 01:25:00 a.m.