Sydney’s always had long-time vegan institutions (the original Bodhi opened 28 years ago and Green Gourmet’s been kicking it for 16 years), but something has happened in the last year – vegan dining has jumped to a new level.
In the past year, a vegan “fish” and chip shop, sushi joint, “mylk” bar and dairy-free coffee venue have all opened in Sydney, while a popular pizzeria (Gigi), burger place (Soul Burger) and gelateria (Gelato Blue) ditched animal products, switching to menus that no longer require launching an interrogation: “Is there cheese/egg/butter in this?” Hatted restaurant Otto even offers a vegan cheese plate and the bestselling item at Ghostboy Cantina is the vegan fried cauliflower taco with macadamia cashew cream (which is excellent, by the way). Sydney’s vegan game is strong and getting stronger.
And whereas the old stereotype of vegan food might have been limited to unappetising and unfilling salad bowls, even high-end restaurants are embracing plant-based dining with imagination-charged menus: Quay, Rockpool, Bentley, Yellow and Otto all offer vegan options.
Silvereye has started doing bimonthly vegan dinners (its head chef, Sam Miller, used to look after dietary alterations at Noma, so was masterminding meat-free dishes for diners who sought it) and I went to the one held last night. The snacks are fantastic, the ‘Hen of The Woods’ is a forest-rich tribute to mushrooms (masquerading as a ‘chicken’ dish) and the desserts are highlights. There’s a citrus-rich payload (with yuzu and finger lime) that’s given a sweet ballast of apple compote; another favourite was the frozen blitz of paperbark, coconut and feioja.
I’m always interested in how chefs zoom out of the ‘problem’ of dietary restrictions and map out new ingredients to try instead. Like Silvereye’s fantastic kohlrabi snack made with nut-milk mayo or the intriguing sounds of the cheese fashioned from sesame that Silvereye’s previous guest chef Alejandro Cancino (who is a vegan) made for the previous meat-free dinner.
At Rockpool, there’s a wonderfully dense and flavour-strong ‘GED’ cake (a restriction-busting dessert that happens to be free of gluten, egg and dairy) and it’s baked out of flaxseed. Otto serves pavlova (pictured) that is miraculously egg-free (the secret substitute? Leftover chickpea brine from the tins). The most fascinating vegan-friendly eateries aren’t about subtracting and slashing away problem ingredients – it’s the way they boost a dish with something unexpected. Cheese-free pizza really is a thing and when done by a place like Gigi, it’s exceptionally good.
While working on this story, I ate eggplant bacon, coconut bacon, tempeh bacon and shiitake bacon. None of these are inescapably a doppelganger for that cured meat, but they expand the culinary dictionary in interesting ways. And even if you’re not a vegan, anything that boosts the spectrum of possible flavours can only be a good thing.
Photo by Nikki To, courtesy of Otto.