My vegetarian dining partner was worried about the shrimp. Was there an error? Had Pine Forest Garden erroneously snuck some crustaceans into the stew of water chestnuts, snow peas and fungus on the otherwise wholly vegan buffet? She was safe. Though the slippery shrimp, with their convincing red stripes, wiggled like the real thing between a pair of chopsticks, they, like all other flesh on the buffet, were fake.
Pine Forest Garden is one of only three vegetarian restaurants we've found in Chinatown (the others, San San Tofu and Quan Yin Vegetarian Restaurant, lean more Vietnamese than Chinese. There's also a vegan bakery, IBUN, inside the Dynasty Plaza Mall), and the only buffet. There's a menu of biblical length that includes everything from veggie Peking duck with steamed buns to something called "Veggie Sea Weed Shank W/ Rice Noodle in Soup." But when the English-fluent server approached to take our order, my friend and I were overwhelmed. She suggested that we try the buffet this time to see what we liked most, then order from the menu on our next visit. Good advice.
I didn't count the number of items on the pair of buffet steam tables, partly because the trays cycled in and out as we ate. What was filled with one stew when we first spooned out some dishes was replaced by another when we returned. Let's just say that, including fruit and mochi at the end, we filled four plates and were far from comprehensive. But our overall impression was positive, if not an all-out rave.
Many sauces tasted like little but soy sauce and corn starch, but fresh veggies and toothsome faux meat made up for some of that. Seafood dishes were among the most flavorful, including fish in brown sauce that tasted as briny as the real thing, flaked convincingly and even had a thin layer of soy surrounding it that replicated skin. Other greatest hits included Vietnamese-style spring rolls filled with soy ham and paired with a tasty peanut sauce, and cha siu buns stuffed with meaty cubes of fake pork.
But both my dining partner and I shared an unexpected favorite: The slider. Obviously I mean a rou jia mo or a gua bao, right? Nope, I mean a good ol' American mini burger. The lightly sweet, fried sesame roll was the key to its success, but tomato, lettuce and strips of something dark and acceptably burger-like (and unaccountably delicious), completed the picture. We agreed that when we return and order off the menu, we will stomach the shame and fill our bellies with a tray of tiny, vegan burgers.