Yuan Restaurant: A review

February 23, 2008 at 2:18 pm (Restaurant review)

My apartment in Montreal just happens to be situated directly above a Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant: Yuan. Soon after I moved to Montreal I joined the Vegetarian Meetup group there for a Saturday lunch buffet. Although most of the folks at the Meetup raved about the place, and many said it was their favorite vegetarian restaurant in Montreal, I thought the food was generally pretty awful. I don’t know that I’ve ever had Taiwanese food before but I’ve had lots of Chinese food and this place ranks pretty low, even compared to the standard lunch buffet. Despite my negative experience, I decided to give the buffet a second try today, because I was starving, the place was pretty packed, and quite a few items on the buffet looked really good. Unforunately, however, my experience was almost the same as the last time 6 months ago.

They started me off with a bowl of won ton soup, which I enjoyed both this time and last time. The broth was clearly made with fresh celery, and was quite delicious–an unexpected surprise since vegetable broths are often tasteless or overpowered by MSG. They also have hot and sour soup which isn’t bad tasting, but is too cornstarch-y for my tastes. It has a lot of mushrooms, which I like, but some of them are very tough.

Most of the hot dishes are made with various kinds of fake meats. Although they can sometimes gross me out, I don’t have anything particular against fake meats a priori (I really love the mock duck at Chu Chai for instance). However, I found most of Yuan’s fake meat dishes to taste odd and have strange textures. The sauces were generally no better: they were too oily, too sweet, neither distinctive nor tasty. The vegetables were almost uniformly overcooked and tasteless. (Of course, overcooked vegetables are to be expected in a buffet situation and they might be more crisp when ordering a la carte.) I think I tasted 8 hot dishes today, but with one exception I only took one bite of each. I did go back for a bit of yuba from one of the dishes (I’m a sucker for yuba).

In addition to the fake meat dishes there was vegetable fried rice and some fried noodle dish. Both were greasy but flavorless. They also offered egg rolls, which had a nice light, relatively non-greasy wrapper, but unfortunately the filling was (again) totally tasteless.

Yuan also has a cold section of the buffet which includes cold vegetables salads, veggie maki rolls, fruit and desserts. Last time they had a fresh sesame asparagus salad that I quite enjoyed. Today there was a zucchini salad which was fine but not exciting, a too-old tomato and cucumber salad with too many dried herbs, and a seaweed salad which I didn’t try. I liked their maki rolls quite a bit both this time and last time, as well as their rice balls covered in yuba (tofu skin). They even had pickled ginger and wasabi. For a place that doesn’t specialize in sushi I thought their maki rolls were surprisingly good–they weren’t the most tightly rolled but were more interesting tasting than the rolls at many sushi places I’ve been to!

The baked desserts are uninteresting, but I enjoyed the fresh pineapple and especially liked the very thinly shaved sliced of green mango that they served today. I’m not sure whether or not it was supposed to be unripe, and it didn’t taste anything like mango, but it had a lovely balance of sweet and sour that helped to counteract all the grease and salt I had just ingested. Shaved green mango slices, perhaps wrapped around some kind of savory filling, is now something I want to try at home.

The only dish I’ve ordered a la carte is a bowl of peanut noodles, which were fine. I wouldn’t recommend them but I might order them again in a pinch.

The front of the restaurant where the buffet is located is rather boxy and although it’s decorated with all kinds of Chinese tchockes it doesn’t have a lot of ambience. However, when I went to the restroom today I discovered that there’s a very large section in the back of the restaurant with booths, low tables and cushions, almost Japanese in style. There was nobody there, and it didn’t seem like you were even allowed to sit there, but it seemed quite pleasant and more atmospheric than the relatively boxy front. Perhaps it is used for private parties?

I’ll probably head back to Yuan just because it’s so convenient, but I won’t try the buffet again. I’ll get a bowl of soup and some maki rolls, or perhaps try something off the a la carte menu. If anyone can recommend any particular dishes please post a comment.

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