Sunday, March 10, 2013

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Service with a scowl" is so true re. Vegie Bar. The arrogance that gets served up alongside rather bland dishes has done nothing to endear me to the place.

This was painfully obvious the very last time I was there (2 years ago) when I had a glass served to me with lipstick marks from a previous customer (the waiter sighed when I asked for another glass) and a TERRIBLE meal served to a friend on our table. Their idea of customer service to rectify the situation? A complimentary slice of cake... To share between four. We refused and demanded the cost of said terrible dish be deducted from our final bill. To say the owner was surly as we paid up is actually being too kind.

Never. Again.

6:09 pm  
Blogger Cindy said...

Pessimistic, perhaps, but I don't think you're being too harsh! While I haven't visited Bear Cafe and Green Gourmet, I wouldn't argue against any of your other summaries.

You've mentioned a lot of places that I feel affection for (and a couple I'll probably never set foot in again) but as you've hinted, nowhere that inspires me to book an intimate table, don a fancy frock, put myself in the hands of knowledgeable staff and linger a few hours.

(As an aside, have you been to Northcote's Veggie Kitchen? I think of it a a sister to Yong and Madame K.)

8:50 pm  
Blogger ZuckerBaby said...

Too true, all of what you say (as one of the purveyors of not-quick-service that you've noted, I am painfully aware of that shortcoming). It's frustrating that all-veg*n places aren't really built for the fine dining experience. There are few places that I go out to now, and very few all-vegan places - unless I'm looking for a quick feed.

9:03 pm  
Anonymous Ria said...

I'm a big fan of Yulli's & Nourishing Quarter. I've been served with a smile each and every time & have always been happy with the food. I guess it depends on the day.

10:29 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I think Cindy's nailed the criteria I'm looking for - would you don a fancy frock for the restaurant? Excellent!

10:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your ideal date night may differ from mine but I love the Beaufort.

9:02 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

A night of fried food makes me feel anything but romantic after!

9:55 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Ria great to hear a positive word about NQ. I've now spoken to three other sets of diners who all had similarly underwhelming experiences. Must have caught three bad nights?

9:57 am  
Anonymous lisa dempster said...

So spot on Gill... nodding in agreement at most of your summaries! I've 'put up ith' so much lacklustre and vague service in the pursuit of pure veg dining.

I will give a shout to New Day Rising - pure veg cafe with none of the slowness or vagueness of similar cafes.

10:33 am  
Anonymous just eat, you fool said...

Contrary to popular belief, Epicurus wasn't a food wanker! His staple was oats and water! His philosophy was - eat what you like but, if you can't, then like what you eat! A little less whining and a little more dining, please!

11:56 am  
Blogger steve said...

Hi Gilli-nice post. I know these aren't 'Fine dining' but what of lentil as anything, soulmama, tofu shop or that vegie place in Chapel St Winsor?
Also none of them are 'Fine; dining as you don't get 'penalized for a monetary amount' for eating there unlike some other meaty places!

adjective. nice delicate beautiful fair subtle good
noun. penalty forfeit mulct amercement
adverb. well nicely good
verb. mulct amerce clarify penalize

12:32 pm  
Blogger Carla said...

I dont go to vegie places for fine dining. simple. its sad but I'm sick to death of terrible service.

2:42 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Steve I wonder if buy nature those who prefer veg*n food are cheapskates? Every noticed a correlation between dietary choices and generosity/tipping?

3:05 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Carla should we vote with our feet when it comes to terrible service?

3:06 pm  
Anonymous Anthony said...

As regards alcohol and veggie food, the third of the cookbooks from Greens restaurant in San Francisco, Fields of Greens, has a thoughtful section devoted to matching wines with vegetarian food. Also, Roger Verge's Vegetables in the French Style closes with some suggested menus, each with a suggested wine pairing.

I suppose for truly ruly fine vegetarian dining you'd best try the vegetarian degustation menu at Jacques Reymond: $235, with each dish accompanied by a selected glass of wine. A cheaper option would be to try a vegetarian banquet from a good quality Chinese restaurant such as Red Emperor

3:11 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Anthony, yes there are great omni places that do vegie degustations well. The point of this piece is the often less than average service, ambiance and general hospitality at solely veg*n eateries.

Speaking of Greens, going to SF soon. Hoping to at least get lunch there while we're in town.

3:58 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Anthony, yes there are great omni places that do vegie degustations well. The point of this piece is the often less than average service, ambiance and general hospitality at solely veg*n eateries.

Speaking of Greens, going to SF soon. Hoping to at least get lunch there while we're in town.

3:58 pm  

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