Shanghai Restaurant Review: Must-Try Plant-Based Bistro Duli

By Sophie Steiner, September 17, 2020

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The Place 

Duli, Shanghai’s first fully plant-based casual bistro, opened quietly in the end of July, amidst the summer rush of events and launches that had been previously postponed due to COVID. Owner Thijs Bosma, a lifelong vegetarian from the Netherlands who found himself inspired by the vegan lifestyle in Chengdu, is beyond passionate about his mission of sharing how good plant-based food can actually be. 

Through the use of bold flavors and his focus on honoring each ingredient for what it is rather than trying to make it into something that it’s not (aka ‘meat’ in a vegan disguise), he has created something truly unique that normalizes the whole experience of eating vegan for plant-based eaters and carnivores alike. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Vegan restaurants are usually a destination, with either Buddhistic vibes, a hefty price tag (think Dashu Wujie) or a strong emphasis on purely healthy eating, where flavor comes in second place. What Bosma has created is an everyday dining option where the value to quality ratio is high so that anyone, despite dietary preferences, can enjoy sophisticated, delicious food that is friendly, approachable and, most importantly, doesn’t compromise on flavor.

The Food 

When Thijs came up with the concept for his 20-person restaurant over a year ago, his first focus was making each dish a 10/10. He teamed up with two freelance chefs who helped his vision come to life through the 10 dishes currently on offer. The food isn’t just yummy through the lens of ‘healthy eats’ or ‘vegan friendly,’ it’s downright delicious, no matter which way you look at (or taste) it. Duli is truly making plant-based food interesting and appealing to everyone. 

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Usually we skip the standard salad selections, saving stomach space for more ‘unique’ dishes. Don’t do that at Duli. While these veggies would be the side show at other restaurants, here they really earn and deserve their spotlight as the star of the show. Coming in at a lower price tag with way more going on than anything coming out of Wagas or Element Fresh, we are officially convinced to never waste another sad lunch on an uninspired salad just because we are working on our waistlines.

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An ode to the Sichuan flavors that left such a deep impression on Bosma comes in the form of the Mala Salad (RMB56). The zesty vinegar-based dressing elevates the crisp baby spinach and nutty edamame without hiding them. Dried goji berries and crunchy Sichuan peppercorn-spiced peanuts add a noteworthy texture contrast, a common thread found throughout every dish on the menu. 

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The Yuba and Avocado Salad (RMB68) is a fun play on a refreshing summer salad, where yuba, or thin, crinkly tofu skin, soaks up the citrus and acts as a meaty play on shredded chicken. The avocado cream coupled with the unctuous chunks of avocado add a creamy richness that juxtapose the tangy dressing and aromatic cilantro.

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Di San Xian is a greasy dish of eggplant, potatoes and peppers fried in a sticky sauce hailing from Dongbei, but the Di San Xian Croquettes (RMB78) couldn’t be more the opposite. These shatteringly crisp golf ball-sized croquettes are stuffed with gooey mashed potatoes and roasted veggies, a typically heavy combination that Duli makes gracefully light. Despite the fact that ‘being delicious’ rather than just ‘being healthy’ is the goal, each dish is naturally healthier than its meat-forward counterpart since nothing is processed and all components are hand-made. 

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For a vegan play on the Taiwanese guaboa, Duli skips the fatty layers of pork belly and instead creates the crunchiest fritter out of chickpeas, cauliflower, whole corn kernels and aquafaba (the liquid left over after cooking legumes that can be beaten into a thick, calorie-free, vegan-friendly whipped cream-textured foam) in the Corn and Cauliflower Fritter with Bao (RMB88). After flash frying these falafel look-alikes, they are smothered in a sesame sauce that rivals Wei Xiang Zhai’s. Roll that all into a plush homemade bao bun and throw in some pickled cabbage, and you’ve got yourself a vegan ‘bao burger’ that could convert even the most devout meat-eater.

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The Tom Yum Wonton Soup (RMB58) is smokier than the Thai version. The expertly folded wontons are stuffed with a mixture of mushrooms, water chestnuts and tofu that pair well with the hint of earthy bitterness and bright sourness apparent in fragrant broth.  

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The Asian trend comes from Bosma’s preference for Asian vegan food, but he also ties in fusion components from different cuisines to give each dish an element of surprise. For example, a nod to Italy can be found in the Doubanjiang Pasta (RMB78), where thick ribbons of al dente pasta are coated in tangy tomato sauce mixed with a hit of homemade spicy fermented bean sauce. However, we were missing that oven char on the roasted pumpkin, our favorite gua that brings a sweetness from the caramelizing of natural sugars.  

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The unpretentious Watermelon Granita and Black Sesame Crumble (RMB48) sounds like a ‘here’s some fruit’ afterthought compared to the Chocolate Cake with Matcha Mousse (RMB58), but do not for one second think about skipping it (or either of them, for that matter). This dessert is a refreshingly layered flavor bomb of vibrant watermelon cubes, QQ sago and house-made black sesame crumble all draped in luscious coconut cream. Each ambrosial bite makes tapping into your ‘second stomach space’ worthwhile. 

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The drinks menu consists of Melborune-based Genovese & Sons coffee beverages, a company that roasts its beans specifically to be used with plant-based milk products rather than their dairy counterparts. In addition to coffee drinks, Duli also offers a selection of natural wines and basic cocktails, with more creative twists on the classics to be released soon. 

Food Verdict: 2.75/3

The Vibe 

None of us at That’s Shanghai are vegan, nor do we have any intention of becoming so, but we will gladly return with a table of omnivores to the lounge music sporting café and have full confidence that everyone will walk away completely satisfied. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Duli successfully makes vegan eating more mainstream without having to sacrifice flavor or dining experience. The atmosphere and food are so spot on that we can almost overlook the fact that the venue has no bathroom… almost.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Plant-based eating is a trend that the rest of the world is moving towards, and while eating vegan usually gets a bad rep as flavorless, dull or boring, Duli is breaking through that stereotype like a boss.

Vibe Verdict: 1.5/2

Total Verdict: 4.25/5

Price: RMB80-150
Who’s Going: Vegans/plant-based eaters, health-conscious foodies, fresh produce lovers, anyone with an appetite near IAPM mall
Good For: Friendly catch-ups, casual date nights, healthy eating without compromising flavor

See a listing for Duli. Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover Image by Sophie Steiner/That’s]

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