MAXINE GORDON heads into a brave new world at The Orchid - York's first Chinese vegan restaurant

FIRST things first. Well done to the team at The Orchid for not only opening a new restaurant in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis - but for also being brave enough to bring a vegan Chinese restaurant to York.

And judging by the packed house on Saturday night, this courage has paid off.

The restaurant in George Hudson Street (formerly the Thida Thai) was full during our sitting from 7pm-9pm.

A hand sanitising station greeted us in the foyer and a monitor fixed to the wall took our forehead temperature before we were admitted, flashing green if we were within the acceptable limit. All our details were recorded for track and trace too.

Given these precautions, it was surprising that none of the waiting staff were wearing masks. This isn't mandatory, but many other restaurants I've visited recently have their staff in face coverings.

We were given laminated menus to study, which was one side of A4 - something always to my liking. Restaurants can offer too many items, and I hate spending ages trying to choose my meal, only to worry that I picked the wrong dish.

Despite The Orchid have a limited menu, I could happily have tried each of the dishes listed.

Starters included 'snacks' such as dried okra, vegan crackers, and a choice of three soups (from £2.50-£3) as well as nine 'small dishes' which you could mix and match tapas style which could add up to an entire meal (priced from £4 to £6).

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Vegan crackers at The Orchid

These small plates included pan fried gyoza, spring rolls, vegan crab skewers, salt and pepper tofu, vegan scallop ball with satay sauce, salt and pepper vegan king prawn, vegan chicken in black bean sauce, stir-fried broccoli, salt and pepper vegan calamari.

It's clear from the menu that The Orchid is determined to make traditional Chinese dishes that appeal to both a meat-free and meat-missing audience - but also to meat and fish lovers too, tempting them with vegan substitutes for the likes of beef, duck, chicken, prawn and squid.

It's a clever strategy, as instead of opening a restaurant for a niche audience, The Orchid should appeal to everyone. Or at least, everyone who is a fan of Chinese food.

This imitation game carries through to the mains selection - all nine of them, including Chinese favourites such as sweet and sour prawn, roast duck and fish with sweet chilli sauce.

To start, we shared some crackers (£2.50), gyoza (£4), spring rolls (£4) and salt and pepper vegan king prawn (£5). The crackers were dark brown and really crispy; a pleasing savoury start. The spring rolls were good too, filled with a vegetable protein and veggies alongside a sweet chilli dip. The gyoza we could have lived without; only one side were fried, so they were a bit stodgy and rather bland.

In stark contrast the 'prawns' were outstanding.

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Crispy 'prawns' - hard to tell the difference

"In a blind test, I'd struggle to tell these apart from the real thing," said one of our party of four. It was true that they shared a remarkable resemblance and taste to the real thing. They looked like prawns, all white and almost rubbery. The taste was just slightly more gelatinous, but not in an off-putting way. On inquiry, our waitress told us they were made using the Japanese plant konjac. We were impressed.

As we tucked into our main dishes - crispy vegan shredded beef with OK sauce (£7), terriyaki king oyster mushrooms (£7) and lemon chicken, we marvelled at the culinary alchemy of The Orchid's chefs.

My daughter tried to dissect her strips of shredded 'beef', almost disbelieving they were not the real thing. "Think this is mushroom" she said after her forensic investigation. Whatever, they tasted great. Little 'worms' of crunchy, crispy morsels in a sweet and tangy, sticky sauce, which she ate with spoonfuls of plain boiled rice (an extra £2)

My husband and our other friend both enjoyed the terriyaki king oyster mushrooms, which came with asparagus. The thick, soft, slices of mushroom were the perfect sponge for the glossy, sweet, savoury and garlicky sauce - and worked brilliantly with the bed of noodles which were first rate and almost a meal in themselves (and a bargain at £3.50).

My lemon chicken was an achievement too.

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Lemon chicken at The Orchid

The 'chicken' was made from soy and had the colour of cooked pork. It was coated in a crispy batter and came with a lurid yellow, jelly-like, lemon sauce. If you have given up on meat and miss it, I can see that this would have the wow factor for you. However, I still eat meat and fish, so it remained, in my mind, second best to the real thing. But a pretty good second best!

Portions are generous and we were bursting to full at this point. But we shared one of the three desserts: the Lotus Biscoff bar with vegan chocolate ice-cream. (£5.50). I'm glad we did. This was like a cheesecake (but obviously dairy-free) and was outstanding. The ice-cream was smooth and chocolatey and a great companion.

Hats off, once more to the chefs who must be among the most clever and talented in York.

A trip to The Orchid is more than just a meal out - it's like being at a magic show.

The Orchid Vegan Restaurant

George Hudson St, York

T: 01904 625855



Food: Innovative 4/5

Ambience: Fine 3.5/5

Service: Mostly good 3.5/5

Value: Very good 4/5

Reviews are independent and meals paid for by The Press