At the start of June, Alissa and I had the idea that we'd spend the month visiting as many of the vegetarian restaurants in Perth as we could fit in. One thing I'd noticed was that other than places like The Raw Kitchen which have crossed over into the collective consciousness, there is a great dearth of vegetarian restaurant coverage by mainstream food bloggers in Perth, with vegan lifestyle blogs largely being your only hope of finding interesting vegetarian places. I'm definitely not a vegetarian, but as an omnivore in the true sense of the word (ie not a carnivore who is a reluctant vegetable eater) I do feel its important that such restaurants get some coverage by non-vegetarians.
In spite of our noble goal, June was far from the hardcore vegetarian restaurant coverage we had envisaged. With Alissa being very busy with university and my workload building up, we didn't end up driving out to any of these restaurants.Worse still, with The Merrywell on our list of places to check out, we ended up going the other way and dining at a place that was almost anti-vegetarian. Wanting to at least make a dent on our list, Alissa and I decided to try out our closest option - Formosa Vegetarian Eating House, a restaurant recommended to us by our friends Jake and Tegan (who dined with us at Melbourne institution Vegie Bar earlier this year) and my bandmate Gemma Farrell, a regular reader of the blog.
Tucked away at the far right corner of the Kardinya Park shopping complex, the place has a very low key, utilitarian vibe common to a lot of suburban Asian restaurants. The cuisine is vegetarian Chinese, and they're well known for their quite convincing mock meat, with dishes like 'Sweet and Sour Pork' and 'Fish Head Noodle Soup' making up the bulk of their vegetarian menu. I remember being taken to their Northbridge store many years ago and being quite impressed by the believability of their mock meat, and I was interested to see if that still held true.
For an entree we ordered the Salted Fried Chicken, a dish that our friends said was a definite must-try. Presentation-wise, it certainly did look like a plate of crispy fried chicken strips that would not have seemed out of place at KFC.
Texturally, the mock meat did quite a good job of mimicking the look of chicken muscle fibres, especially visible in some of the thicker chunks on the plate. The flavour wasn't exactly spot on (proving that not everything tastes like chicken!) but as a meat analogue it was close enough and in fact there was something about its flavour that reminded us of the fried yam dumplings you order at dim sum tea houses, or like the Yam Duck we ate at Daisy's Cafe in Jandakot earlier this year. Dipped in some chilli oil, it was a very tasty snack - mock meat or not.
Being a cold and wet winter's night, Alissa felt like something soupy and ordered the Curry Laksa Kuey Teow. Due to some mix up in the order it ended up being rice noodles instead, but Alissa graciously shrugged off the mistake. The Laksa was probably the least convincing and least satisfying dish of the lot. A good Laksa derives a lot of its flavour from prawns and without the prawniness, Formosa's Laksa was all about the spice and creaminess while lacking that extra element to bind it together. Lacking the prawn stock quality, Alissa thought that a generous helping of daun kesum and other herbs might have helped lift it. Still, the dish was decent enough, and I've eaten non-vegetarian versions that were much less satisfying.
The nicest parts of the dish were the little faux-meat touches, complete with a fake prawn, fake chicken and fake fish ball that were all decent (if imperfect) meat analogues. Alissa was in the mood for actual vegetables, and really enjoyed the green beans that had been included.
The Spicy Hou Tou Mushroom (eaten with a side of rice) was easily the best dish of the night, and I was very grateful that the staff and a customer at a table near us had recommended it. Mostly interested in eating mock meat, a dish that explicitly announcing itself as mushroom did not fit the bill of what I had been looking for, but the end result was a dish that really did taste like meat. The mushrooms had been fried with a lovely crisp coating, and achieved a texture that was incredibly meaty and meatlike. This was made all the more delicious tossed through a sweet and spicy sauce. Forget about whether it was vegetarian or not, this was a seriously good dish. Seeing my eyes light up, Alissa tasted one of the fried mushroom pieces and immediately announced that she was having some serious dish envy.
The Verdict: Very Good
Alissa and I enjoyed our dinner at Formosa Vegetarian Eating House. While the lack of prawn flavour in the Laksa meant it just couldn't rise to the standards of the best Laksas I've had, the Salted Fried Chicken and the Spicy Hou Tou Mushrooms were some of the most convincingly meaty vegetarian dishes I've eaten, and made for a tasty meal without any need to qualify that it was 'good for vegetarian food'. We probably ordered a bit much for two people, and judging by the family sized groups of other diners, I think Formosa would work best ordering a number of dishes to sample and share. That's how I'd definitely want to do it if Alissa and I came back - so long as I get to eat those Spicy Hou Tou Mushrooms again, of course.