STEPHEN LEWIS finds an unexpected memory of China in a tiny veggie restaurant in Goodramgate

IN THE northern mountains of China's Hubei province there's a little town called Danjiangkou.

It's not much of a town. When I lived there 20 years ago a cement factory dominated the skyline, filling the air with dust. There was a big hydro-electric dam forming a huge, island-studded lake that locals called the 'Little Pacific'. And on the top of a hill overlooking the town was the teacher training college where I worked.

Danjiangkou was bitterly cold during the winter. Lining the sides of the road leading down from the college into town were a series of street stalls where, on particularly cold days, you could buy a hot snack to warm yourself.

My favourite of these was baked sweet potato. These were cooked in their skins in an open brazier. They cost a few fen (Chinese pennies) each, and were so hot you'd have to juggle them from hand to hand until they cooled.

Sink your teeth in and the skin, blackened and slightly crisped, would tear away in strips. The orange-yellow flesh beneath was delicious; scaldingly hot, moist, fluffy, and bursting with the warm, earthy, tantalisingly sweet flavour these potatoes are famed for. After wolfing one down, you'd walk on into town, fingers and mouth burned but body glowing with warmth.

I've tried many times to find sweet potato this good since returning to the UK, without success. It is no doubt partly nostalgia that makes the memory of those sweet potatoes so delicious. Nevertheless - and with one small gripe apart, of which more later - I came as close as I'm likely to in finding a worthy substitute when I went along to Goji, the vegetarian deli and restaurant in Goodramgate.

It's an unpretentious little place. The window and half of the first floor are taken over by the deli, which offers an assortment of delicious-looking vegetarian (and sometimes gluten-free) cakes and pastries to take away.

My wife Lili and I had come for lunch, however (the restaurant closes at 4.30pm and says on its website that it has 'no evenings planned at the moment'). There are a few tables in the small room at the back of the restaurant - and more up some rickety stairs in an equally small room that has a carved cat perched in the window.

The menu is simple: a selection of vegetarian burgers; Goji 'platters' of various types (including a middle eastern platter consisting of spiced sweet potato borek - a kind of filo pastry roll - with pomegranate glaze, tabbouleh, falafels, hummus, beetroot relish and flat bread); and various soups and broths, such as the Goji hotpot, a 'warming barley vegetable hotpot topped with roast potatoes and fresh herbs'. There were also a range of lunchtime specials chalked up on a board.

For a confirmed veggie it all looked like foodie heaven. The lively, contented chatter emanating from the busy tables confirmed this was a place where people were enjoying their food.

We ordered a small pot of 'let the flowers bloom' oriental jasmine tea (£3.95), plus a glass of chilled organic house white (£3.95) for me. The tea arrived in a small glass teapot, and the flowers unfurled as we watched. The tea lacked flavour, but the teapot with its unfurled flowers was nonetheless a thing of beauty. The wine was delicious; cold, and slightly oily (in the best possible way) on the tongue, with just the right balance between fruitiness and tartness.

The best was yet to come, however. We both opted for a vegetarian burger as our main - me the mushroom burger with cheese (£8.75), which was described as a 'large garlic mushroom in a multi grain burger bun, with halloumi, salad, mayo, ketchup and sweet potato wedges', and Lili the vegan mushroom burger with tofu (also £8.75), which was similar to my choice but included slices of smoky tofu.

To call these burgers does not do them justice. Arriving on large white plates, they were wonderful concoctions that begged to be carefully deconstructed, the individual flavours savoured. My garlic mushroom was huge, and oozing with garlic; the salad fresh and crisp, with peppery rocket leaves and crisp strips of beetroot; the bun tasty and firm. A dash of pesto and mayonnaise added piquancy. The tofu slices in Lili's burger, meanwhile, gave an additional layer of texture and flavour, smoky and chewy.

But best of all were the sweet potato wedges. These were large and thick, hot the way they should be, the skins delicious, the flesh simultaneously moist and yet fluffy. Best of all, they had that hint of exotic sweetness that took me right back to that cold street in Danjiangkou.

We both agreed they were wonderful. Then Lili took another bite - and bit into a piece of rotten potato. If you've ever done that, you'll know how hard it is to get rid of the taste, one that puckers the mouth with disgust. It was only a small rotten nodule within an otherwise healthy potato, but a careful chef should have made sure it was cut out.

It put a bit of a dampener on the main course. But our desserts - chocolate ganache pecan tart, ££3.95, for me, and apple, pear and almond crumble, £4.60, from the specials board, for Lili - were both good. My tart was rich, chocolatey and gooey, while the topping of Lili's crumble was crunchy, the combination of apple and pear making for a great flavour and texture.

All in all, we had a lovely lunch at Goji. The total bill, wine and tea included, came to just under £40 - which isn't cheap, but was reasonable for food of this quality. It was just a shame about that piece of rotten potato...


Goji Vegetarian Café, 36 Goodramgate, York

Tel: 01904 622614


Food: Mainly excellent: 3.5

Ambience: cheerful: 3.5

Service: friendly: 3.5

Value: reasonable: 3