Shangri-La

This atmospheric Sunset spot's warm dining room hosts a meat-free menu that free-ranges from mu shu to "goose."

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GUARDIAN PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE For many of us, the word "kosher" immediately suggests something about meat. As one of the crazy women on Seinfeld once put it, "it's how they kill the pig." Well, not exactly, but maybe we can give partial credit, because while there is no such thing as kosher pork — pigs are strictly off-limits, kosher-wise — the method of slaughter is an important aspect of kosher dietary restrictions.

But kosher isn't only about meat. It's also about vegetables and fruits, all of which qualify, provided you don't eat any tag-along bugs. At Shangri-La, a 33-year-old Chinese vegetarian restaurant in the mid-Sunset, the cuisine is cooked "under kosher supervision," according to the menu card. I pictured a proper authority figure back there in the kitchen, inspecting the produce like an Army medic examining freshly shorn inductees for signs of head lice.

You can't see into the kitchen, of course. This is an old-style Chinese joint, complete with worn red carpeting, fake-wood paneling, Chinese calendars, and — an element of beautiful discord — elegiac violin music on the sound system. The music reminded me, a little, of the early scene in Schindler's List in which the Shabbat candles are lighted. It was like being in a café in some city in central Europe in 1937, with the shadows of war gathering in dark corners. The sounds of the violin are among the most haunting and moody in music. I tend to object to almost all music played in restaurants, but that's at least in part because you rarely hear this kind of music in restaurants any more.

Despite and because of the violin's tones, we found Shangri-La to be atmospheric rather than moody. The service staff was cheerful and remarkably knowledgeable; we ordered by number, and our server quietly named the dish while writing it down. She knew them by heart. We even threw in a couple of extra numbers, as if giving a quick quiz. She knew them all.

This kind of intimate knowledge suggests confidence in the menu, and although Shangri-La emphasizes meat substitutes, from shark-fin soup to duck and kidney — a style I find suspect, as if most people would not even consider eating vegetarian food unless they were faked out into thinking it was made with real meat — the cooking is outstanding and reasonably priced. Not for nothing are the tables laid with placemats proclaiming the various kosher-vegetarian awards the restaurant has won in recent years.

Some of the most convincing dishes are the ones that don't bother to pretend — a plateful of spicy cucumbers ($3.50), say, skinned, seeded, cut into lengths, then dressed with a thick, glistening sauce that began in sweetness and ended in chili heat, like spring into summer. The cucumber has to be among the most modest members of the vegetable kingdom, and hardly any serious attempt is made with it beyond slicing it into salads or raita or puréeing it into gazpacho. Here it offered a wonderful texture and a moist mildness that gently supported the sauce.

Green onion cake ($4.25) is another dish that's vegetarian by birth, and Shangri-La's version was big, puffy, and crisp, like a flatbread. Veggie goose ($4.50), on the other hand, did seem to try for some carnivore appeal by stuffing smoked tofu into a buckwheat pancake, rolling it into a fat cigar, slathering it with hoisin sauce, and slicing it into bite-sized pieces. It was tasty, but it wasn't goose.

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