If you venture inside Swanston Street's Noodle Kingdom, stop short of the host and turn left to the lift, you can check out one of Melbourne's newest vegetarian restaurants, Gong De Lin. It's another Chinese mock-meat venue, and you could be forgiven for wondering if Melbourne really needs more of those, but a flick through the menu shows that it's not just trotting out the same stuff as the nearby Enlightened Cuisine and White Lotus.
Most striking is the range of cold dishes, such as mock meats, bean jelly, mushrooms, eggplant and other vegetables. Hot dishes boast lots of 'seafood' - abalone, fish, squid, crab and shrimp - and mushroom varieties that are new to me, like hedgehog and mountain. Sweets and tea also receive careful attention: there are rice balls and buns, pancakes and durian shortbread as well as the more common icecream and fritters; hot and cold herbal teas and homemade soy milk. Unfortunately vegan and gluten-free items are not clearly marked; we suspect there's much more of the former than the latter.
We filled up on veges first, with the diced hedgehog mushrooms and macadamia nuts ($18.80). These were agreeable but not remarkable, in a gentle salty braise.
After ordering the deep-fried silver thread bun ($5), we learned why it was listed on a snack menu towards the back - it doesn't really complement the main dishes! The sweet white doughiness was fun, though we would have liked a condiment with it.
The pick of the night was certainly the sizzling pepper beef (~$20). It didn't pull off the red meat guise, but it was tender and saucy with the promised peppery warmth.
Gong De Lin is simply furnished and brightly lit; it had a calm atmosphere even as it filled up. The booths by the window look like a particularly pleasant spot to pass an evening. I reckon we'll be vying for those tables and exploring the menu further - we've both got our eye on the Shanghai-style cold noodles with seven sauces for next time.
Gong De Lin has already been thoroughly reviewed and complimented by other VegMellers - check out vegan about town, The Simple Eater, The Good Hearted and Brianna. Omnivorous blogger grazing panda is a fan too.
Gong De Lin
Level 3, 264 Swanston St Melbourne
veg dishes $9.80-48.00 (most mains ~$15-20)
Accessibility: There's a ramp from the street level, then a lift up to the restaurant. Floors are almost all flat (window-side booths require a step up). Tables are packed fairly densely but passages are clear (see photo above). We received full table service. Steph reports that the toilets are accessible.