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 syd­ 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 (smithand­daugh­ 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. 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. 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 (mill­, 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

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