Dish Review

Tofu: is there anything it can’t do?

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Padmanadi’s veggie take on traditionally meaty Asian dishes could’ve fooled us


Why hasn’t somebody told me about this place? I blame each of the beautiful 20-something hipsters, 40-something couples and smiling 60-something groups of old friends that have been keeping Padmanadi a secret. I was left to discover this gem the night that a friend and I treated our wives to a vegetarian Chinese feast. That’s right, vegetarian. And it was damn good.

My friend’s wife told mine about Padmanadi a few weeks ago and I was aching to give it a try. Despite our mutual, Alberta-bred distrust of herbivorous cuisine, we went behind their backs to set up a reservation for our group. My family unit was the first on the scene and when our guests arrived, everyone was suitably surprised. We sipped at hot, complimentary green tea while saying our hellos. The hors d’oeuvre platter arrived as they sat down and we produced two bouquets of flowers that were waiting behind the till.

My friend and I shared a grin as the ladies started into the menu. They discussed the 101 items for under $10, which included snacks, soup and thick soup, noodles and rice, desserts and drinks. We agreed with their observations and tried not to show that we had already gone over the menu in detail. I showed my wife the best part: “deluxe vegetarian dishes” were an array of standard Chinese meat dishes (like BBQ pork) that were oddly preceded with the word “veggie.” The day’s specials were black pepper steak and lemon ribs—presumably similarly vegetarian.

I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode and didn’t know if I could trust the menu. Was it tongue-in-cheek? Was the vegetarianism optional? Could we actually get ribs here? While our wives debated, they snacked on the first course of the Dinner for Four ($58). The hors d’oeuvre platter featured four types of finger food, three quarters of which duplicated meat of some sort. The spicy fruit jerky was intriguing and the two others fooled me completely in their masquerade as tender, tasty processed meats. The real treat was found in two slivered, samosa-like patties, one salted spicy and the other sweetly cinnamon.

The medium-sized, comfortable dining area lined with booths sported large group tables in the central area. East facing floor-to-ceiling windows let in the early evening light; other patrons watched the passersby on 97th street in our busy Chinatown area. Traditional Asian knickknacks lined nearly every exposed surface: golden Buddhas laughed their welcome and cat statues brought luck. Not that Padmanadi needed luck, since each time the kitchen doors swung open, the heavenly aroma of tantalizing Chinese cuisine wafted through the restaurant.

The next course to arrive was my bride’s perennial favourite: hot, crispy spring rolls. We learned that while the tangy sweet and sour sauce brought down the temperature of these delicious spring rolls, a hand waving in front of your mouth wasn’t quite as effective. We also made room on our table for a steaming tureen of wonton soup filled with lush, green broccoli and tender shitake mushrooms. I tried the soup as our daughter wrapped both hands around her broccoli tops. The light broth was a perfect background to the plentiful, thickly stuffed wontons.

Once we polished off the rolls and had a bowl or two of soup, the next few dishes arrived with the steamed rice. The black bean sauce on the heaping platter of eggplant wedges gave a delightful bite, and the lo han vegetables presented a fresh array of standards in a light dressing. Most surprising of all was the BBQ tofu. With the consistency of an undercooked omelette or an overbaked custard in a firm skin, the tofu combined with its tangy, bright orange sauce to confound my tongue.

The last dish to arrive was a plate of huge, shelled shrimp in a rich red sauce. Lightly breaded, there was no way these delicacies were anything but warmly spiced prawns. I checked the door. It still said “Vegetarian.” Bizarre.

When the cheque arrived, my friend put the last part of our plan into action. I went to pay as he left “to retrieve something from the car.” A cellphone call and a quick block-and-a-half later, he returned from his wife’s favourite bubble tea shop with drinks to accompany the thick, juicy orange wedges that were delivered with our bill. Including tax and tip, $20 per person bought us not only an exotic trip to the Orient, but some serious mind-games as well. Was it vegetarian? Wasn’t it? Did it matter? We enjoyed a slow walk back to our awaiting chariots with our arms full of flowers, happy wives, tired toddlers and a single meal’s worth of leftovers per family. I’ll be back to the meatless pad, man. (Adi.) V

Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant
10626 – 97 Street • 428-8899

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