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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Special Delight for Vegetarians : Even in good times, the Chinese found it hard to sell pure greens. But this eatery makes it look easy.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vegetable Delight doesn’t slice, dice or chop, and you won’t hear about it in the latest infomercial. It’s a remarkable Chinese vegetarian restaurant where Chinese meat and seafood dishes are fashioned out of things like gluten, tofu, mushrooms, yam paste and nuts.

Even in the best of times, Chinese vegetarian cooking has been something of a tough sell in this country. A man named S. T. Cheung did gain a temporary share of fame about a decade ago when he opened Fragrant Vegetable in the largely Taiwanese-American community of Monterey Park. The restaurant received glowing notices and people flocked from all around to eat its healthful, aesthetically pleasing dishes, but it didn’t take over the world.

Vegetable Delight, however, is more accomplished than Fragrant Vegetable (though perhaps hampered by a somewhat out-of-the-way location in the upper reaches of Granada Hills), thanks to the skill of a chef from Taiwan who is conversant with traditional Chinese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Most Chinese Buddhists are only partial vegetarians, eating meatless meals on certain days of the month. They never really lose their taste for meat--even when they go on retreats at Buddhist monasteries. So over the centuries, clever monks at those monasteries perfected the art of using vegetable proteins and other products to replicate the taste and texture of meat for their lay guests, with truly amazing results.

Take the assorted appetizers for two, which consist of mock barbecued pork, fried vegetarian shrimp, crispy egg roll and paper-wrapped vegetarian chicken. The “pork” is cut into little slices and colored red around the edges, with only a slightly rubbery texture to betray its non-mammalian origin. Vegetarian “chicken,” which mimics paper-wrapped chicken (actually, foil-wrapped, like most paper-wrapped chicken these days), has the strong soy and ginger flavor of the ground chicken version. The fried “shrimp” are made from nuts, shaped like actual fried shrimp. They look for all the world like something you’d get in your local Denny’s, right down to the mock tail . . . made out of a carrot stick.

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Even more astounding is something with the unfortunate name “smoked vegie fish.” The “fish,” made from pressed tofu sheets, has a light skin and a dense texture. It looks exactly like real fish, and from the smoky, mildly sweet flavor you’d swear that it’s smoked whitefish. The only thing the chef has failed to reproduce is the bones.

There are, of course, plenty of appetizers that do not rely on this sort of sleight of hand. Chinese pancake is the traditional wheat flour onion cake, the one you find in your local dim sum parlor, and as flavorful and crispy as it gets. The wonderful steamed or fried dumplings are stuffed with minced bamboo shoots and mushrooms, accompanied by a full-flavored vinegar dipping sauce. And the straight vegetable dishes, such as cold pickled cucumber, mustard greens or spicy kimchi, cut the richness of the more complex dishes.

After the appetizers, you might want a casserole dish of something like Napa cabbage, mushroom and tofu. It’s a deliciously light soup, served in a metal hot pot. There are sizzling plates, such as tofu with snow peas or (more meatless magic) bean curd sheet “eel” that looks and tastes almost exactly like genuine sea eel.

One of the best main dishes is vegie meat ball: massive “meat” balls (made from vegetables, mushrooms and nuts) that mimic the famous lion’s head meat balls of northern China. It’s a wonderfully tasty creation that comes wrapped in leaves of Napa cabbage and splashed with a flavorful brown gravy. Try it with one of the chef’s ethereal rice dishes, such as vegetable fried rice.

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Orange flavor vegie chicken and beef, made from nuts and gluten, respectively, are just like orange flavor real chicken or beef. Princess vegie ham roll looks and tastes like real ham rolls, except that the ham is textured soy protein and the filling is minced Chinese vegetables. One more dish to blow your mind is vegie squid, fashioned out of the rubbery yam paste the Japanese call konnyakku .

The dining room, incidentally, is quite pleasant. It’s the former Chef Tien restaurant. One heritage from the old Chef Tien is the waiter. Like the chef, this man is Chinese, but unlike the chef, he speaks excellent English, and unlike a lot of waiters, he really knows this food.

He can make things easy for you--but the food really speaks for itself.

Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

Where and When

Location: Vegetable Delight, 17823 Chatsworth St., Granada Hills.

Suggested dishes: assorted appetizers, $6.95; smoked vegie fish, $4.95; sizzling plate bean curd sheet eel, $8.95; vegie meat ball, $6.95; princess ham roll, $9.95.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily.

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Price: Dinner for two, $15-$28. Beer and wine. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 360-3997.


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