What to do when some members of your party are conscious vegetarians, but others are not yet so enlightened? One solution could be dining at Metro Bodhi, an urban-Buddhist themed restaurant that open mindedly caters to vegetarians, those who like wholesome food, and those who still want some animal protein. And it has some of the most innovative selections of Western-style vegetarian food that I have come across in Taipei.
The weekend before last, I went to a dinner organised by raw food devotee Prashantha Lachanna (aka Prish). I had communicated with Prish online, never met her in person and didn’t expect to meet anyone else I knew at the dinner. (Although it turned out in the end that I had met one person before.) I am rarely unfazed by new social situations, but for some reason when I walked into the room I had this sudden sense of panic about not being cool and funky enough — would this middle-aged mother of two fit in with the new, gourmet conscious crowd. But I shouldn’t have worried at all, as dining with foodies is fabulous — everyone oohed and ahhed at each dish as it came out, and voluntarily let total strangers taste-test their dishes, all the while comparing notes on the different flavours and textures. Good food truly unites.
And actually the salivating over the food began before we even got there. Prish posted the menu on Facebook beforehand, and people started comparing notes about what to order days in advance. Metro Bodhi, I found out, has a loyal train of devotees and many in our group had dined there before. Despite the large number of Buddhists in Taiwan, many of whom eat vegetarian regularly if not all the time, there are actually relatively few good quality vegetarian restaurants. And even fewer serving Western food.
The philosophy at Metro Bodhi is unique: it is both vegetarian and not vegetarian. The restaurant is spread over three levels. The first level, which opens to the street, is strictly vegetarian. This level is graced by a large golden Buddha statue, and out of respect they request patrons avoid consuming meat here. (The Buddha is not just ornamental, as can sometimes be the case in bars and eateries, and Metro Bodhi treats it with due reverence and respect.) But patrons can choose from a broader menu on the second level, ordering either vegetarian or non-vegetarian meals. We dined in the basement level. This is usually vegetarian, unless hired out for a private function (as with us), in which case it can be converted to both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
Our meal began with a small, complimentary bowl of spicy tomato chickpea soup.
Then the salads arrived. Salads had been the highlight of the virtual discussion before we arrived, with good reason. I did not order the salads, but a new-found friend let me try a few mouthfuls of the chayote salad with grapefruit, mint olive oil dressing and aged white wine vinaigrette (NT$160, or NT$320 for a serving to share). It was fresh, zingey and I loved how they had peeled each and every segment of the grapefruit. They were also generous with the toasted pine nuts. Only downside was that I did not actually taste much of the dressing, and so it tasted a little plain on its own but perfect as a side dish.
I didn’t try this avocado salad, ordered by someone else at our long table, but it looked pretty. Almost too pretty to eat.
The lady seated opposite me, who I later learnt was a food and culture writer, ordered the cumin bread topped with mozzarella cheese, poached eggs and creamed mushroom sauce (NT$280). In explaining her choice she was a bit apologetic. “I always order this,” she said. “I should try something else, but it is so good.” When it arrived, I saw why she liked it so much. The bread was thick and generous, much larger than the picture indicates. Metro Bodhi bakes bread fresh on premises; they also sell their bread so you can enjoy at home. And underneath the cheese peeked a layer of gently cooked egg. She generously cut off a corner for me to try. It was comfort food, something like a wholesome version of a croque monsieur.
The lady opposite me ordered this seasonal pasta with home-made marinara sauce (NT$295). I didn’t taste-test this one, but it looked much more fabulous than a simple dish of tomato sauce and veggies might otherwise indicate.
Someone on our long table ordered Ofakwu, which I think is a Nigerian dish — or maybe I am wrong (NT$295). Due to an ordering confusion, we ended up with two serves so we got to dish out the extra, communal style on the table. It was fun mixing the lightly poached egg into the black-eyed and other beans, wild rice and root vegetable dish. It was slightly spicy, wholesome and moorish. An unexpectedly good choice: not something I would have ordered, but having sampled it I would be tempted to order it again.
I ordered gnocchi with white beans, eggplant and rosemary sauce (NT$310). This dish was a little late in coming, and perhaps due to ingredient shortages, I didn’t recognise any eggplant but enjoyed the shiitake mushrooms. Three of us seated next to each other ordered this dish: two of the dishes arrived at the same time, and the third nearly fifteen minutes later (with different mushrooms). Still, all three of us agreed that the gnocchi was light and homely as it should be, and one — who was a regular patron — declared it was the best dish he had ever eaten there. But we all reached for the salt: it needed a kick, and I would have loved a shave or two of parmesan.
A fellow diner kindly allowed me to lean over and photograph his asparagus risotto with white truffle oil (NT$320). He enjoyed it, but didn’t appear to like it as much as we enjoyed our gnocchi.
Having a bit of a sweet tooth, I was keen to try the brown sugar galangal ginger milk tea (NT$200 for a pot). It looked dreamy, and the frothy, sweet milk tea did not disappoint. It tasted pretty much like a rich chai latte, something I sorely missed from the cafes of multicultural Australia. This pot was generous and got shared around the table.
The person next to me chose this wicked dessert — chocolate souffle cake (NT$180) made Valrhona chocolate and served with whipped cream. She had been clearly waiting for this finale all evening, and while this was too good to share, I gather that she was not disappointed.
Someone decided to order the warm apple frangipani (NT$230). The menu advertises a 25 minute wait, and so he was unsure whether or not it would be worth going to the trouble for. But time did not seem to be a problem, and it arrived not too long after the other dishes. And I must say that it looked — and smelt — delicious.
Metro Bodhi is at No 200, Da’an Road Section 1 (台北市大安區大安路一段200號), running off Xinyi Road. Despite good intentions, I think our large group put staff into a bit of a spin. At times I saw three or four people running downstairs with orders, with an organised chaos determining who received what dish in what order. It also took a while to settle the bill, as despite us all having been allocated numbers the electronic system did not seem to register this. Still, it all came together in the end and staff were genuinely friendly. Definitely a good place to come to again, especially with vegetarians jaded by the lack choice beyond cheap lunchtime buffets.