It is laid out like a restaurant, complete with comfy chairs and crystal glasses upon polished tabletops, but people are welcomed into Suyuan as cherished guests, rather than paying customers.
Bristol’s latest veggie venue – in a growing portfolio – opened earlier this week on Grove Avenue, just off Queen Square, and it is clearly a labour of love for the pair, who have set up a new venture serving “pure vegetarian Chinese home cooking” with meticulous attention to detail.
The resulting atmosphere is a pleasant haven from the busy streets and (still!) cold air outside on this mid-April evening.
A vibrant water feature greets diners at the door, its relaxed trickle audible throughout the restaurant, where a sweet scent hangs in the air, plants and paintings adorn the walls, lanterns cast a warm glow and melodious music plays overhead.
Proudly setting brand new, plastic-coated menus at the table, the proprietors take it in turns to enthusiastically talk through the dishes, as well as the healthy vegetarian ethos behind them
“Are there any specials today?”
“It’s only our fourth day so everything is special,” comes the chef’s reply, delivered with a broad smile.
A quick scan of the two proffered drinks menus reveals a wide selection of special Chinese teas, fruit juices and soft drink options – but alas, no alcohol to be seen. Confirmation comes that it is a booze-free restaurant. It’s a brave decision, but one that might just work in this health-conscious age.
An early bird deal, offering a starter main and rice or pancake dish each for £12.99 per person seems like a good way to sample the food on offer, along with speciality teas (one Earl Grey blue flower and one spiced citrus fusion, priced at £2.95 each) to accompany the meal.
The latter prove to be art forms in their own right, arriving in beautiful lidded cups, with a metal mesh encasing the vibrant, fresh tea ingredients and the promise that hot water can be topped up as much as needed – a promise that is diligently kept.
Starters set the tone for the feast to come – the delicate flavours of the Tian Lu Xiang, a sauteed spinach and nut dish, perfectly complementing the Zha qie he, fried aubergine stuffed with tofu, Chinese chives and egg.
The latter is a delightful explosion of taste and texture, but beware of the strong garlic that lingers for hours to come.
With plates cleared, a flash of fire can be seen in the kitchen. It’s not long before more food starts to arrive – and then keeps coming.
First, the Suyuan special curry, a pot of hearty potato, butternut squash and mushroom curry that is served hot, thick and flavoursome throughout.
Next, a mountain of the Suyuan special rice, which is a riot of colour and packed full of taste and textures as the broccoli, carrot, sweetcorn and onion are brought to life with delicate seasoning. It is a side that could pass as a main meal in its own right.
Yet another visual delight arrives in the form of Jia chang dou fu, home-style pan fried tofu with peppers, wood ear mushrooms and celery, a dish that arrives steaming, fresh and delicious.
But, it is not for the faint-hearted, as an innocent bite reveals the presence of several unexpected and fairly fiery chillies.
The accompanying crispy pancakes, stuffed with spring onion and sesame seeds prove an entirely unnecessary addition to the table already laden with dishes – yet, they are undoubtedly the cherry on top.
Hot, crispy, and just a little bit greasy, the pancakes are the ultimate vegetarian comfort food and proof that even the simplest of dishes can be a riot of flavour in the hands of a skilled cook.
The rich chocolate and praline truffle dessert (£4.95) lacked the home-cooked quality of the savoury dishes, but nonetheless lived up to its name and was a satisfying sweet bite to round off a diverse and delicious feast.
The relaxed decor that has transformed the former cafe into a Chinese-inspired taste of paradise has all been hand-picked in China, and the setting is just made for lingering over a lengthy meal.
Sure, there are a few teething problems – the advertised walnuts on the starter were switched for other nuts, the pan fried tofu dish was a little on the fiery side and it turns out there is no card payment for the first couple of weeks.
But, all of this pales into insignificance amidst the warm, friendly and welcoming environment.
It is a bold, fresh take on an old favourite and one that may not appeal to all, but is well worth a visit.
Grove Avenue, Queen Square, Bristol, BS1 4QY
07725 319 760
Read more: Dangun – restaurant review