I really hate being sent to Salad Purgatory. It’s one of the pitfalls of being a vegetarian, being told that the only menu-compatible dish is a wimpy-ass salad. Now, I’ve got pretty militant salad beliefs — one being that unless it’s a salad with some substantial stomach-filling goodies (ie a hefty serving of lemon-spritzed haloumi), it’s not really a legitimate main course, in fact it’s really A Side Dish Masquerading As A Main, the conman of the main course menu, if you will. No one would ever smilingly try to sell you a A Really Big Serving of Bread as a main course, so I’m not sure why eateries think they can pass off a slightly larger serving of lettuce leaves in the same way.
So that was the state of play when we had a work lunch at The Book Kitchen in Surry Hills the other day. I actually had been pretty excited to make a return visit, because I’d previously had an awesome dinner there – on a cosy winter night, I’d eaten bread so good it was conversation-stopping (rosemary and olive, if my creaky memory can be trusted?), a parmesan gnocci and a gorgeous passionfruit assiette for dessert (a scoop of passionfruit sorbet with a passionfruit sponge smothered in hot passionfruit sauce – it was bliss for such a passionfruit tragic as myself). But I guess things are literally quite different in the light of day.
As I squizzed through the lunch menu – which had lunch staples such as the Pumpkin Pancake with Morrocan Spiced Lamb and Mixed Leaf Salad ($16) and Sirloin Steak Sandwich With Melted Blue Cheese and Beer Battered Onion Rings ($16) – I was miffed to see vegos punished with the very humourless Primavera – Goat’s Curd, Garlic Croutons and Garden Green Vegetables ($15). Hooray, a virtuous salad for lunch! It’s not just the supersized failure of imagination that is disappointing – but the stereotype that vegetarians supposedly have had some kind of tastebudectomy as a result of forgoing meat and should just hoover up what they can get. When you’ve got eight lunch mains on offer, just one thing without meat strewn in it (that isn’t a killjoy salad!) really isn’t an epic thing to ask for. (I’m not sure why making vegetables the main star of a dish is so hard to swallow for some – as Michelin-starred French chef Alain Passard says, ‘Vegetables, with their colours, pictures, forms, smell and aromas are much more creative.”)
Of course, The Book Kitchen isn’t the only joint guilty of this (it’s especially weird that their menu really falls down on this point, given they do have better vego dinner options), but I thought I’d try to wriggle out of Salad Purgatory if I could.
The waitress suggested maybe I could have the Shredded Chicken Soba Salad , just with the chicken bits taken out, which didn’t entirely win me over (would it just be big plate of soba noodles with two sliced shallots? I’ve had that happen before and didn’t want to repeat that being-menu-shortchanged experience).
She checked the potential vego options with the chef, then came back to say I could just basically have the salad (but she said it in a way that made it sound really exciting, like “how great is this! You can have the salad! It’s not really an option, but isn’t great that you can have it? Yay!”. It reminded me of when you have to feed a kid something they really don’t want to eat and the only way to sell it to them is with lots of over-bubbly PR spin.) So I was being sentenced to the salad now, I couldn’t really avoid it.
So the salad stand-off was over. I’d lost, but I at least asked them to amp up the vegetable content (‘cos the curse of salad main is that you’re starving about two hours after you shovel it down – Reason #439,593 why they are eternally dud choices!) I then felt bad ‘cos I didn’t want to be “the tricky diner with the pesky dietary issues”, cramping everyone’s kitchen style, but now I was the “special case” that needed to be asked “if everything was alright”.
In the end, it didn’t really matter because it turned out a lot of the other dishes were just middling too – I’ve never seen people re-season their dish as much as my friends who had ordered the Shredded Chicken Soba Salad. It barely had any dressing and they felt lucky if they chanced across a peanut on their plate, because that was the only ingredient that burst through the wheaty noodle blandness. Another friend ordered Poached Salmon, Baby Tatso, Kipfler Potato, Black Olives, Poached Egg, Herbs & Olive Oil and thought it tasted “fresh”, but flavour-dull. The only interest that the dish sparked was the table-wide curiosity about what the hell “tatsoi” was. I thought it sounded like a cool karate move, then someone suggested it was a mushroom – but like the Book Kitchen experience, the final revelation was underwhelming. It was just Chinese baby leaves.
I’m not eager for a Salad Purgatory lunch experience again soon, but it wasn’t so horrific that it cancelled out my pleasant dinner memory preceding this The Book Kitchen visit. For the time being, I think I’ll keep this cafe on my probation list, perhaps.
The Book Kitchen, 255 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills www.thebookkitchen.com.au