Saturday, 10 May 2014

La Panella Bakery, Preston, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Local knowledge cannot be underestimated in the hunt for good food. Sure, picking up a copy of the Good Food Guide might help you find interesting places that even the average local may know nothing about, but there is a certain depth of knowledge that comes with actually living in a city; I know that my ability to find interesting middle-of-nowhere suburban gems in Perth is greatly enhanced by the fact I live there, and I have to resign myself to the fact that discoveries like a ex-Vue de Monde chef cooking at a Melbourne bowls club are the kind of surprise finds that a tourist is unlikely to just stumble upon.

When making arrangements to stay with our friends Jake and Tegan in the suburb of Preston, Jake informed me of a nearby bakery that we had to try. Prior to him becoming a vegan, I used to jokingly tease Jake's preference for burgers and junk food as being 'the rearguard of the culinary arts', in contrast to the avant-garde of Molecular Gastronomy. Its a term that has stuck - in spite of the Dude Food trend suggesting that he was perhaps just really ahead of the pack.
"It's a bit rearguard, but their vegan pies are very convincing... or at least we find them to be," Jake informed me over the phone.
Interested to see what local knowledge can uncover, I added La Panella to our schedule of places to visit. Located on Preston's High St, the tired and dated appearance of the bakery's facade comes complete with missing letters in the 'Hot [Br]ead' signage that adorns the wall. This place is vegan? Where's the green paint job that signifies healthiness and sustainability? Where's the hipster-pleasing industrial chic with the Edison-style light bulbs? It looks a lot like any old school no-frills run of the mill independent bakery, which makes the fact its food is largely vegan all the more remarkable.

Being a bakery, they made all the usual standards - Apple Pies, Apple Scrolls, Doughnuts, Pizza Rolls etc - but the sheer amount that are labelled vegan outnumber those that are not (yes, even the Pizza Roll).

But the real draw of La Panella are their pies; apparently renowned in vegan blog circles but seldom mentioned in mainstream food blogs by omnivores if a Google search and Urbanspoon are anything to believe. Seeing all the Vs in parentheses makes it clear that these are all vegan, but its subtle; I can imagine a tradie coming in for a meat pie picking up the Plain Pie and being none the wiser. And check out those prices - I think the last time I paid $2 for a Sausage Roll was the late '90s!

Being someone who favours savoury over sweet, I went with a Curry Pie and a Sausage Roll, choosing to devour the Sausage Roll first. I think there is something of an Uncanny Valley when it comes to vegan versions of meat dishes, which is to say I find food that just happens to be vegan better than food that substitutes out meat and find less than convincing replacements - these type of dishes just remind me about how much better the meat version is. There are a few exceptions - the excellent food at Fitzroy's Vegie Bar comes to mind - and La Panella would have to be one of them. There must be some kind of meat alchemy going on here as this Sausage Roll was utterly convincing, right down to chewy bits that tasted an awful lot like gristle! The difference between this and a regular sausage roll are practically unnoticeable, and the fact I could tell any difference was probably because I was aware of what I was eating and was looking for the differences; if I didn't know any better, I would likely just accept this for the real thing.

But of course unless you're getting your Sausage Rolls from a gourmet butcher, they mostly have a floury bulked-up-by-breadcrumbs kind of flavour that is probably easy enough for a skilled cook to work around; a pie would be a real challenge. For this reason the Curry Pie was all the more impressive - I'm not sure what it says about the quality of meat used in pies, but this was again utterly convincing as a minced meat curry pie, with a nice spice and realistic, meaty texture. There were times I thought I saw something that looked like a lentil, but again I was actively looking for differences and would not have given it a second thought otherwise.

Alissa had been skeptical about how convincing their offerings would be, and decided that the mushroom in the Mushroom Pie would at least giving it some interest if the illusion failed. As her second item, Alissa's love of sweets and pastries drew her to the (also vegan) Apple Scroll.

Again, this was another very convincing use of meat analogues, with the pie tasting like a good ol' traditional Aussie Steak and Mushroom Pie, even without the umami boost of the tomato sauce. Alissa was also happy with the nice and moist Apple Scroll, though of course this is fairly easy to pull off compared to the smoke and mirrors of the pies.

Jake and Tegan bought a horde for lunch and for takeaway. I asked Tegan about about how they discovered this place, and she said it was a chance walk-in when she saw the vegetarian sign at the front of the shop, and it was only after walking in and looking at the products that the store's seemingly secret modus operandi became clear. A most serendipitous find indeed.

The Verdict: Very Good
I have to admit I was a bit skeptical that they could pull it off, but La Panella's pies were a really pleasant surprise that convinced even non-vegans like myself and Alissa. The place is definitely far from fancy and the food is not going to be challenging even a mid-priced institution like Vegie Bar for best vegan food in the Melbourne, but what they're doing to achieve such a meat-like quality to their pies is downright magical. No doubt healthier than the fatty meat usually used in meat pies, I think Alissa and I would be regulars if we lives in the Preston area. When's the last time you had a meat pie and sausage with change from $5?

La Panella Bakery on Urbanspoon

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