The delicate dishes of a Sichuan vegetarian pop-up restaurant from Chengdu have been impressing Los Angeles foodies, Li Yingxue reports.
In August, Mixun Teahouse from Chengdu made a pop-up appearance at a Los Angeles eatery to serve up an imaginative selection of vegetarian Sichuan dishes - from spicy noodles to special teacakes - at a popular Venice Beach restaurant called Plant Food + Wine.
Xu Cungui, head chef at the restaurant based in Sichuan's provincial capital, had already created a menu for his US diners. But he was forced to adjust his recipes when he landed in southern California and realized that he had to find substitutes for some of the ingredients that are only available in Sichuan.
He had to prepare handmade gluten-free noodles every day, and the teacakes required hours of work to prepare. And although he only served a limited number of guests each day, the feedback they gave instilled him with pride.
Clockwise from top: Black truffle and Pu'er tea hotpot is for diners who don't eat spicy food. Ice plant with sesame sauce is one of chef Xu's signature dishes. The decor of Mixun Teahouse resembles traditional Chinese medicine cabinets. Xu upgrades spicy tofu with a special mushroom sauce. Photos Provided to China Daily
Xu joined the culinary world in 2002 and has worked with many international chefs in several countries around the world, including Singapore, France, Italy, India, Malaysia and Thailand.The 37-year-old chef was impressed by how popular vegetarian restaurants are in the United States, and how foodies there are impressed by how delicious Chinese vegetarian fare can be.
After cooking in the kitchens of the Shangri-La, Sheraton, MGM hotels and several other international groups, he deepened his knowledge of the culinary arts and gained experience in kitchen management. Xu joined Mixun Teahouse in 2014 amid preparations for its launch.
He created the menu for the restaurant's opening in 2015 with a focus on healthy vegetarian food, tea and pastries.
"People's impressions of food from Sichuan is that it's always spicy, but that's not what the cuisine is all about. We wanted to create a place for local foodies and tourists from around the world to come together and enjoy healthy, tasty vegetarian food in Chengdu," Xu explains.
Mixun Teahouse at The Temple House is nestled in a restored historical building in downtown Chengdu. Designed by renowned UK architecture firm Make Architects, the decor is inspired by the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, and its interior walls have been elegantly styled to resemble traditional medicine cabinets. For an authentic finish, the compact rows of drawers are also meticulously engraved with the names of different herbs and medicines.
The restaurant also takes inspiration from the healthy dishes once served at the neighboring Daci Temple.
From its signature delicacy, marinated tofu cubes with mushrooms and nuts, to the refreshingly delightful iced cherry tomatoes and the aromatic lotus soy-sauce fried rice, the teahouse's balanced offerings are light yet tasty and prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
The tofu dish is one that's representative of Sichuan cuisine and is typically made with tofu and minced pork. Xu designed a mushroom sauce to replace the pork and soften its spiciness.
"Vegetarian cuisine has its limits, so I had to change the way I cooked to ensure the dishes are always flavorful and tasty," he says.
"For example, we never used extracted vegetable juice when making nonvegetarian dishes, but now I use that method a lot." Xu also uses vegetable oil in his cold dishes.
In another traditional Sichuan noodle dish with a pepper sauce, Xu uses sesame sauce, minced preserved vegetables and minced nuts to replace the pork. Spinach juice is added to the noodles to improve the color and nutritional value.
Bamboo mushrooms in green Sichuan pepper sauce is a must-try. Xu boils the bamboo mushrooms, peanut sprouts and other mushrooms with green Sichuan peppers to bring out their special, numbing flavor.
The starter, dried lotus marinated with wasabi and sesame dressing, is another highlight.
Xu updates his menu according to the seasons. With the arrival of autumn, he adds chestnut and walnut dishes to his menu as the harvest time sets in.
"Sichuan has a lot of different ingredients at different times of the year, so I keep on creating new dishes around whatever seasonal ingredients are available," he says.
Since the traditional soup base for Sichuan hotpot is usually beef tallow, Xu has instead created a mixed vegetable-oil base using chilis to present a similar flavor with a softer taste.
Xu has also designed a hotpot soup base for diners who don't enjoy spicy food. It's made from Pu'er tea to which he adds truffles to lift the aroma.
Other highlights include the Sichuan-style cold noodles, iced jelly and two other classic dishes made with natural local ingredients that reveal the refreshingly light side of Sichuan cuisine.
Built on the former site of Daci Temple's mulberry garden, the teahouse pays homage to this historical link by incorporating mulberries into its homemade pastries and drinks.
Xu also creates a wide range of desserts, including the signature Mixun teacakes made from purple sweet potatoes, mung beans, mulberry leaves and cranberries. Another highlight is the assortment of "sun cakes", which have fillings made from figs, red beans, purple sweet potatoes and cranberries.
A unique Chinese-style afternoon tea experience is also available. Xu makes the handcrafted Chinese desserts with just the right touch of sweetness to pair them perfectly with the fragrant Chinese teas on offer.
And in June, Xu brought nine of his signature dishes to Jing Yaa Tang restaurant in Beijing, where he collaborated with chef Li Dong to create a pop-up vegetarian menu that surprised foodies in the capital. Xu also invited Li to bring his signature vegetarian Beijing dishes to Chengdu.
"I learned some new dishes when I was in Beijing, such as bean curd puffs, which gave some new ideas for dishes to discuss with the chefs in Los Angeles," he says. "This year's pop-up restaurant is just the start. I want to continue bringing Sichuan vegetarian cuisine to more people and places around the world."
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