vegetarian fine dining: an oxymoron
Last year after my vegan summer I lamented just how disappointing the vegetarian dinning experience can be. For those who eschew meat and fish there’s an increasing array of vegetarian/vegan (let's just simplify that with veg*n) eating establishments but almost without exception it’s a trade off between culinary choice and a good night out.
What makes a good night out? Company and ambience are a large part of it but if investing in a decent meal I want one I can linger over, enjoy the food and a glass of wine, soak up the atmosphere and receive good service. If you don’t know what exactly to order or sharing a meal in an unfamiliar restaurant, a waiter comes into his/her own. They can steer you away from ending up with a table of same-y dishes and create a feast of balanced flavours, matched with appropriate beverages. A great waiter knows how to pace the meal, allowing time to digest between courses and never clears away the dishes until all at the table have finished. They know when and what to top your glass up with. A good waiter knows how to tempt you with dessert, even when you’re full.
While having a glass (or bottle) of wine with a meal isn’t mandatory, one of the oddities of veg*n dining is that alcohol is often absent or only they offer generic choices that lack the skill of a sommelier. Beyond religiously influenced restaurants, when did choosing to be veg*n become synonymous with being teetotal?
Austerity is a recurrent theme in these places. In fact it’s almost a choice between hippy grunge and austerity. But both have bad service. And when did rudeness become the perfect sauce for tofu? I don’t get it.
While I’ve not eaten at every veg*n eatery in this city, I’m familiar with most. Follow me on the grumpy guide* to some of the best known exclusively veg*n eateries in Melbourne (and a few familiar haunts in Sydney).
Madame K’s: Brunswick St. Relative newcomer that's neither hippy nor austere, it’s the closest thing to the average omni restaurant but still far from fine dining. I love the lush interior. It’s licensed and has better (though not expert) service than most, though can be very slow when busy. You’ll be happy if you’re a fan of mock meat and Asian food, though it's under-seasoned for those who like the real deal.
The Vegie Bar: Brunswick St. Hippy. A noisy, busy barn. Often have to queue for a table, even at 6pm on a weeknight. Food is largely what I’d call “shared house vego” with a few stellar raw dishes. Licensed. Service with a scowl. Food rarely arrives at the same time as your dining mates.
Trippy Taco: Gertrude St. Hippy grunge. Casual, line up and order. Service almost non-existent. Cheapo Mexican food that can be veganised. Licensed with the dreaded “house” wine but also margaritas, tequila and imported beer.
Yong Green: Brunswick St. Hippy meets Asian austerity. Good, cheap Korean influenced vegan food, including excellent raw food choices and homemade kimchi. Though doubled in size last year, often need to queue and they still don't take bookings. Most of the waiting staff are inexperienced and sometimes mute. Not licensed.
The Moroccan Soup Bar: Brunswick St. Hippy. Cheerful, though not necessarily skilful service. Good cheap Middle Eastern food that tends to be tasty but sloppy. Definitely not fine dining. The mismatched chairs make comfort a lucky dip. Only tables of 6 or more can book, so queuing is common. Not licensed (but in keeping with it’s Muslim origins it gets a free pass for that).
Mr Natural Pizza: Brunswick St. Mostly takeaway but gets honourable mention for the worst vegan pizza I’ve ever eaten.
Shakahari: Faraday St. Pan-Asian austerity. I’ve been eating here for 25 years. Twice I’ve been in a group that management have threatened to kick out for enjoying ourselves too much. Not really a feel good place. Hard wooden chairs. The service is too quick, the last time we ate here we were seated, ate two courses and out in thirty minutes. The food is better than most and it serves alcohol but it’s ambience, like it’s sense of humour, remains sadly lacking.
Bear Café: Brunswick St. Neo-hippy. A newcomer daytime café that serves coffee, cup cakes, vegan toasties and a few other dishes. Run by a lovely couple but succumbs to the usual chaotic service. They seemed slammed when two people order coffee at the same time.
Lord of the Fries: Brunswick St. Diner. While Lord gets a tick for being neither austere nor hippy mock diners, like mock meat, gets a bit boring. It’s yet another line up and order place with minimal service. While being vegetarian doesn’t mean giving up junk food, after eating their oily food I feel awful, not exactly a date night experience (ditto the vegan fried food at The Gasometer Hotel). Unlicensed.
Badde Manors: Glebe Hippy through and through and been around for eons. Eclectic fit out. Traditional café menu. This is what Brunswick St in Melbourne used to be like 25 years ago. Service depends on the individual serving you, from cool to chatty. It's so authentic to it's roots that I'd forgive it, if the food was a bit more exciting. Unlicensed.
Yulli’s: Crown St, Surrey Hills. Modern cool. Is it a bar, is it a restaurant? We had a delightful, quiet lunch here last year. Though I remember the table seemed very small for the large tasting plates. Night time reviews are varied, not so much about the food but poor service. Though a totally different type of restaurant to Madame K, it will also confuse omnivores who won’t pick it as a vego haunt. Full beer and wine menu.
Bodhi in the Park: Sydney CBD. Austere modern Asian. A grown-up restaurant with more professional, though often aloof, service. The food is good but the price reflects it. But why oh why, do the seats need to be so darn uncomfortable? They’re not keen for you to linger too long. Licensed.
Green Gourmet: King St, Newtown. Asian hippy. Most customers line up at the bain marie and order at the counter, though there is also an a la carte menu and nominal service. Unlicensed. An Asian cheapie, with lots of mock meat. Like the food, the entire experience isn’t memorable.
Apt Café O'Connell St, Newtown (at the back of Berkelow books, not the café upstairs) Hippy. 100% vegan. Order and pay at the counter. Regular breakfast menu and Vietnamese lunch options. Once again, run by lovely people but the tiny kitchen was slammed early into the weekend breakfast service, ensuing a long wait on food and drinks. Unlicensed.
Nourishing Quarter: Cleveland St, Redfern. Hippy. From the outside this eclectic café looks like it could provide a quirky but delightful dining experience. But how wrong could we be? Adhering to a strict two sittings a night policy the inexperienced, almost mute, staff get you in and out as fast as possible, piling plate after plate on the small tables. The menu looks interesting, gluten-free and vegan with a Vietnamese influence but in the end there’s quinoa and tofu in almost every dish.All the entrees tasted the same. One of the most disappointing vegan dining experiences ever and considering the competition, that’s saying something. BYO.
Am I being too harsh? While some omni restaurants do veg*n food and the entire dining experience well, why do vego restaurants treat their customers like second class citizens.
Or is it just me who thinks so?
*For objective reviews on all these eateries, check out Michael and Cindy's blog.