Eat your greens
Vegetarian? Vegan? Dinner tonight just got a whole lot more interesting. The plant-based revolution is growing like Jack’s beanstalk.
It’s a quiet midweek night in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Potts Point but cosy bistro Yellow (yellow sydney.com.au) is at least three-quarters full. Fans flock to this lively eatery not for duck confit, steak frites and similar meaty classics but for tortillas cradling sweet potato and smoked chipotle tomato, grilled abalone mushroom with Manjimup black truffle and cured egg yolk, plus other winning examples of chef and co-owner Brent Savage’s creative plant-based cooking.
“I’d see all this produce at the Carriageworks Farmers Market that deserved to be front and centre rather than put on the side of a big piece of meat,” says Savage. Sydney’s famous Saturday morning market didn’t just inspire dishes; it provoked a change in direction for this neighbourhood favourite. In 2016, Savage and co-owner Nick Hildebrandt rebooted the 40-seater as a vegetarian restaurant, much to the surprise of guests and observers at the time. “There were a lot of doubters,” says Savage. “But based on the number of requests we had at the other restaurants [he and Hildebrandt also own Bentley, Monopole and Cirrus in Sydney] and the huge following we had with vegetarians, I felt it was the right time and the right place to do it.”
In the past, vegetarians were often sentenced to an unending array of lentil patties and tofu. But today their prospects look decidedly more positive. Why? The wellness revolution, interest in sustainability and the rise of heirloom fruits and vegetables are just some of the factors that have helped to elevate plantbased dining.
Most crucially, however, is the number of Australian cooks who have turned up to the meat-free party.
“[Many] chefs who eat meat are approaching vegetarian cooking with a different perspective to vego and vegan chefs,” says Shannon Martinez, co-owner of vegan hotspot Smith & Daughters (smithanddaughters.com) in Fitzroy, Melbourne. She follows an omnivorous diet herself. “Vegetarian restaurants these days aren’t hippie and old-school. They’re fun and serve amazing food and wines – not just mango lassi and curry. Just because you’re vegetarian doesn’t mean you don’t like booze.” And so it is at Martinez’s highenergy house of flavour and rock ’n’ roll. Vegan trattoria is the name of the game at Smith & Daughters, where schnitzel, meatballs and other red-sauce regulars undergo meatfree makeovers.
But while the rise of new-school vegetarian dining rooms is notable, the way “normal” restaurants have embraced plant-based cooking is even more telling.
Gone are the days of subtract-thingsuntil-the-dish-fits recipes and vegie stacks. Thoughtful options are becoming standard at the country’s better eateries.
Think pan-fried Brussels sprouts with labne and powdered seaweed at Etta Dining (ettadining. com.au) in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. And deeply charred pucks of daikon braised in mushroom dashi and plated alongside tiny pins of enoki at Adelaide’s Japanese stronghold, Shōbōsho (shobosho. com.au). The movement has even infiltrated that most vegetarianunfriendly of dining environments, the corner pub. At Tom McHugo’s Hobart Hotel (87 Macquarie Street; 03 6231 4916), a salad of chopped broadbean tips dressed with mustard, fermented radish tops and roasted swedes lolling in a caramelised vadouvan-curry butter share menu space with steak and chips, Scotch eggs and other pubgrub stalwarts. “If you’re really looking for something that evokes a sense of time and place, it’s going to be a vegetable,” says Tom Westcott, the pub’s chef and graduate of Hobart dining rooms Franklin and Garagistes. “They’re fleeting things, especially in the Tasmanian growing season.” It helps, of course, that some of Westcott’s organic growers are as close as half an hour from the city centre and can get him dazzlingly fresh produce just hours after it’s been picked.
At Millbrook (millbrook.wine), a picturesque winery restaurant at Jarrahdale in the Perth Hills, head chef Guy Jeffreys has gone one better, cutting out some of the middlemen his city peers have to rely on. “We don’t buy fruit and vegetables,” reads a note on the Millbrook menu. “Our 90-year-old orchard and heirloom vegetable garden, which is grown from last year’s saved seeds, writes the menu for us.” Daily picking ensures dishes such as chargrilled broccolini with a punchy salsa verde and figs with wild weeds, estate honey and popped corn sing with flavour. The sprawling kitchen garden also means the eatery can cater for vegetarians and vegans at the drop of a hat.
And then there’s the clear difference between Millbrook’s menu descriptors and those you might see elsewhere – in dishes such as “spiced cauliflower, heritage chicken and pumpkin seed yoghurt” and “peas, beef rib, polenta and chilli jam” vegetables lead the way and protein comes second. This format clearly betrays the kitchen’s passions. “Growing and cooking vegetables is the highlight of our day,” says Jeffreys. “I thought that should be what goes first on the menu.”
Millbrook’s no-waste carrot dish uses the whole vegetable
Burnt leek with smoked milk at Shōbōsho (above); Yellow’s abalone mushroom with egg yolk and Manjimup black truffle