Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Vegie Bar, Fitzroy, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Vegie Bar needs very little in the way of an introduction. A fixture of Fitzroy's vibrant restaurant scene, Vegie Bar has been cooking contemporary vegetarian food for over 20 years, and still draws crowds 7 nights a week (or at least every weeknight I've walked past). When my friends Jake and Tegan moved to Melbourne it was one of the first places they were taken to, and when I came over to Melbourne to see Prince in 2012 they passed on the knowledge for one of the most memorable meals of the trip. Alissa had also enjoyed a meal at Vegie Bar before we had met, so when planning our 2014 Melbourne trip it was one of the first restaurants locked in.

The main dining hall of the restaurant has a converted warehouse/large share table vibe, with walls covered in posters for upcoming shows from Melbourne's vibrant cultural scene.

The busy and noisy main hall is contrasted by the more intimate vibe of a side room with a decidedly shabby chic vibe.

Having been the people who introduced me to Vegie Bar as well as providing us free accommodation during our stay, Alissa and I took Jake and Tegan out as a thank you for their hospitality.  Formerly from Perth, Jake and I have been friends for over 10 years. An electronic musician working under the name Obscotch, he is one of the few people I know personally who has more (and more esoteric) synthesizers than I do; if you ever want to geek out over gear with someone Jake is your man. Tegan and I have quite similar views on politics, and we've had many great conversations about the environment and other areas of policy; she is passionate advocate for animal welfare. As vegans, they are certainly live their values and are doing their bit for a sustainable future.

We decided on three mains to share between the 4 of us, as the serving sizes are quite generous and the desserts are worth leaving some room for. The decision for our three mains was fairly easy - Jake and I were on the same page that the Sambal Noodles and the Vegan Nachos were a must, with a Casablanca Pizza taking the third spot.

The Sambal Noodles were easily my favourite dish here last time and it did not disappoint. The noodles were cooked perfectly - neither too hard or too soft, and ironically for a vegetarian restaurant they didn't overdo the vegetable (or should I say onion) quotient as so many omnivorous restaurants do. The sambal and hoisin sauce that seasoned the dish were in good balance and Alissa agreed that in terms of flavour the imitation duck was a reasonable approximation, albeit softer and more springy that the real thing in terms of texture. This dish is a great example of why Vegie Bar is the kind of vegetarian restaurant that has a following even amongst omnivores - the Sambal Noodles are not just a case of a dish that is 'good for a vegetarian version', but is delicious enough in its own right to not need such qualifying statements.

Jake's other favourite dish is the Vegan Nachos - oven baked corn chips with black beans smothered in vegan cheese (apparently, but more on that shortly), topped with jalapeno peppers, guacamole and vegan cashew sour cream. From memory, I felt 'smothered in vegan cheese' was a bit misleading; if you've seen standard Nachos and the artery clogging rivers of melted cheese flowing like magma over the corn chip shards then you'll know the photo above looks an awful lot less cheese-filled than the description suggests. If you look carefully there are bits of melted cheese on the corn chips but its hardly smothered.

In all other respects this was another delicious dish, with the black beans playing the role of an effective meat analogue with its rich flavour. The generous green mound of guacamole imparted its healthy, fatty creaminess and the vegan cashew sour cream was one of the best made from nut faux-dairy products I've had - so much so that at the time I thought that it was meant to be the vegan cheese. I have to admit that I did miss the dairy cheese that more conventional nachos are served with, but this was a decidedly lighter and healthier alternative.

Though labelled a 'Traditional Pizza', the Casablanca is far from traditional, seemingly drawing most of its influences from Morocco and the Middle East rather than Italy. With an infusion of fresh tomato, spicy harissa and hummus as a base, the pizza is topped with mushrooms, roasted pumpkin, eggplant, red capsicum, olives and finished with parsley, toasted sesame seeds and a squeeze of lemon.

I've never quite understood why people bother with cheeseless pizza - the cheese to me largely makes the pizza, and without it it just seems like sauced bread. This pizza on the other hand made perfect sense to me, and its Middle Eastern flavours would have seem an odd fit with mozzarella melted on top. Without the cheese to provide the easy source of umami, the Casablanca found it in other ways - tomatoes, sesame (both as the tahini in hummus and toasted on top), the mushrooms and black olives - with the pumpkin and eggplant providing meatiness and body. This reminded me of the vegetarian food of Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks, and how imaginative and full his dishes are while just happening to be vegan at the same time.

The Vegie Bar experience should definitely end with something from their cake selection, as they have some seriously good desserts too. Wanting a bit of a break before diving into sweeter flavours, we took our desserts back to Jake and Tegan's.

Unless you're a vegan or have an aversion to dairy, then the Berry Cheesecake is an absolute must - I'm not exaggerating when I say it ranks very highly as one of my favourite cheesecakes ever. The texture of the cheesecake itself is so smooth while tasting pleasingly umami and salty-sweet, with the sour bite of the fresh raspberry just finishing it off wonderfully. It was two years between my first slice in 2012 and this one in 2014, and it makes me a little sad to think how long it will be before I get to have my third.

For vegans envious of the Cheesecake, there are plenty of vegan friendly options such as the Living Carrot Cake. As someone who loves a good maillard reaction and crispiness in general, I'm always a little skeptical of how tasty raw food can be, but this raw carrot cake surprised me. It tasted similar to Indian sweets, with the carrot (and presumably walnuts) providing a coconutty crunch. I still prefer conventional Carrot Cake (like the one we had at Jaylea's back in Perth), but it was interesting to see the carrot cake idea expressed in raw form.

I'm not really into chocolate desserts, but Jake and Tegan swear by the Vegan Chocolate Cake that they found tastes even better heated a bit to allow some of the chocolate icing to melt. Its not my kind of thing, but it would be definitely up your alley if you're a chocoholic

The Verdict: Excellent
Vegie Bar is the kind of vegetarian restaurant you wish was in every city; it understands that tasty, hearty food is universal and proves that it can be done with little (in the case of the cheesecake) to no animal products (everything else). Its good food, plain and simple, and would definitely be a satisfying meal for usually omnivorous diners. What's more, the prices are very reasonable with our reasonable size mains all between $13.50-15.50 (compare those prices with the menu at the Raw Kitchen in Fremantle). I'd still probably put our 5 course vegetarian degustation at Co-op Dining and the vegetarian courses of our meal at Attica ahead of the Vegie Bar as my all-time favourite vegetarian meals, but at this more casual end of the market they're definitely the one to beat.

Vegie Bar on Urbanspoon

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