Monday, October 09, 2006

Beyond rabbit food

I got a delightful email from a reader living in KL who is missing the vegetarian delights of Melbourne, which prompted me to go back to the most enduring vego restaurant in this city and count my blessings.

201-203 Faraday Street, Carlton, Melbourne
Ph: 03 9349 1754
Prices: entrée around $12, mains $17-18, dessert $9-10

I first went to this landmark Melbourne restaurant about 20 years ago, when it was hardly a new kid on the block, having at that point clocked up a decade of service to the vegetarian community. Down the road were other vego stalwarts like Lord Lentil and Vegetarian Adventure, which have sadly long since hit the dust.

Shakahari has survived and moved from Lygon Street to just around the corner in Faraday. The move swished up the décor a little, especially the sense of arrival in the plush red corridor. Despite this, there is still an odd feeling of austerity that clings to the place. Maybe it’s the unadorned planked wood tables, or the mustard coloured walls that are desperately in need of a makeover. I have only been told to quieten down or vacate a restaurant twice in my life - both in large groups at Shakahari (a venue that has always catered well for big table get togethers). It’s as if they want you to be a little more reverential and have a little less fun.

But that aside, the food is delicious. The vegan portion of the menu has greatly increased over the years and there is a good mix of old favourites (the satay and croquettes) as well as new tastes. There is attention to detail for flavour, using spices that I still can’t name and mouth feel. The servings are generally high on vegetables and low on stodge, unlike some other veggie establishments that rely on lots of rice and bread to fill you up.

Entrees are light and tasty, though not skimpy. The green mango salad was succulent in a sweet soy dressing that honoured the fruit. The old favourite (and ongoing reminder of the now defunct sister restaurant “Madam Fang”) tempura fried avocado rolls, are so delicious that I still order them though they contains capsicum, for which I do not have a fondness.

There is always a curry on the menu. It’s presentation has evolved from the more utilitarian compartmentalised metal tray, to a terracotta pot. Here the chef’s use of herbs and spices sets it apart from any other curry I’ve eaten. The flavour relies on a wide palate of flavours rather than searing heat. A generous serving of pickled vegetables with tender shavings of lemon grass and a small side of rice accompany the dish. If vegetarian protein is more in order, tofu and seitan are plentiful in the trademark satay skewers, or tempeh and fried tofu in a flavoursome laksa.

I am not usually a pasta fan, but with a seasonally changing menu it is worth keeping an eye out for inventive vegan options. I once had a ‘lasagne’ featuring the most delicate, citrus flavoured sheets of pasta – that still brings back many happy memories.

The serving sizes allow most people to eat 2 courses without feeling uncomfortably full. But it’s a dilemma to go savoury or sweet. Even with a modest menu, it is hard to choose. For me – a creamy vegan dessert is a rare treat and here I have to recommend the tofu caramel. This is a silky mound of tofu, richly flavoured by the caramelised pistachios and lashings of sweet syrup.

Other than the atmosphere, the only other small quibble about Shakahari is with vegetables being centre stage, they would have tasted even better if they had been organic. With such a delicate balance of flavours, not laden with heavy sauces, my organic acquainted palate can detect the difference - but it is still top end vegetarian eating, at a reasonable price.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

yay! that is so awesome.. i loved your careful and unbiased review.
not a huge fan of shakahari's myself but i do appreciate that they do particular dishes really well.
have you been to vegetarian orgasm on gertrude st (previously smith).. was not impressed but perhaps it's improved. also, love gluttony (it's a sin) on smith st.. great vegan menu you should give a go.. your meat eating friends would be delighted too!

1:04 pm  

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