Vegetarian food: Ten Auckland restaurants doing it rightby Leisha Jones
No meat, still a treat
Whether you’re a full-time vego, flexitarian, or just dabbling in the odd meat-free day, these 10 restaurants offer sumptuous vegetarian menus that push plants into the spotlight.
Where vegetables get lavished with the fine-dining treatment
Jacob Kear’s vegetarian tasting menu applies inventive cooking and curing techniques to create texture and flavour profiles similar to the meat courses in the regular tasting. A plump shiitake takes the place of an oyster; briny yuba (beancurd skin) replaces clams in a silky egg custard; beetroot is dehydrated in mirin to create the texture of raw beef in a tartare; a chunk of braised daikon topped with black garlic miso stands in for a fillet of cod; and a slab of golden celeriac, roasted in hay and served with three-year aged parmesan soup and truffled celeriac puree, does a fine job of replacing lamb. Kear’s Japanese-American heritage and passion for wild, local ingredients is evident in each course, which can be matched with wine, saké or fresh juice. From the unforgettable bread and butter, right down to the petit fours – which are presented like an enchanting forest – the menu is full of magical surprises that will have you daydreaming about your return days after leaving the restaurant.
For a more traditional Japanese take on vegetables, the vegetarian set menu at Ebisu features all the classic hits. It starts with vibrant ribbons of pickled red cabbage, daikon and cucumber, followed by a beetroot and avocado sushi roll, mixed vegetable tempura and wafer-thin cabbage salad. More creative vegetable treatments follow, such as meaty eggplant, glazed with two kinds of miso, cooked until pulpy and doused in sesame sauce; steamed wombok (Chinese cabbage) presented like an unfurling flower and drizzled with housemade XO sauce; and teriyaki tofu with a dark black miso jam and white truffle oil. It’s a lot of food for a good price, and won’t leave you wanting for sashimi or karaage chicken.
Lebanese flavours with pleasing meat-free textures
With the heaters blazing and the Sky Tower illuminated through the big bay window, there are few more charming Auckland locations in the evening than St Kevins Arcade. While Samir Allen’s slow-braised lamb shoulder and charred octopus dishes are spoken of highly around town, his treatment of vegetables is worthy of applause too. With nine of the mezze dishes being vegetarian, you can happily create your own vege feast, starting with the city’s silkiest hummus; smoky eggplant baba ghanouj; and golden-green falafel, topped with vivid pink pickles. To follow, order a selection of hearty vegetable dishes such as roasted cauliflower with a caramelised puree, almonds and pickled date; aubergine with yoghurt, chickpeas and cashew nuts; or the tastiest treatment of a cabbage we’ve ever seen: The malfouf is a wedge of red cabbage roasted to bring out its natural sweetness and sitting on top of a vibrant muhammara red pepper paste, finished with the salty tang of whipped feta, walnuts and fenugreek.
A meal at Ima is all about sharing – you only have to choose your main protein and a colourful parade of flavour-packed salads and vegetables will appear on the table. For vegetarians, there is golden fried haloumi in place of meat, or an Israeli dish called sabich, comprised of chickpeas, potatoes, eggplant, tahini and chilli. The sides, packed with lemon, herbs and spice, include a very memorable Arab rice loaded with lentils, nuts and caramelised onion; as well as charred carrots with feta; garlicky sesame spinach; chopped tomato salad and a zesty slaw.
Expect the unexpected with punchy vege flavours
Stepping through the doors at two-time Metro Supreme Restaurant Award winner Cassia, the first thing that hits you is the intense fragrance of spice you don’t find elsewhere in the city. Here, the vegetarian version of the five-course tasting menu offers vegetable dishes that are redolent with aromatics, all with an underlying hum of the perfect amount of chilli. The tasting starts with two street snacks, pani puri and bhel puri – both slap your palate to life with plenty of coriander, green chilli and tamarind. Delicately plated yet robustly flavoured dishes follow: beetroot, both roasted and pureed, is served with spiced creme fraiche and a black garlic wafer; k¯umara and carrot is caramelised to enhance its sweetness and then given a lick of heat with vindaloo butter; and golden-fried, silken eggplant sits on a bed of smoky kasundi. Finally, ribboned zucchini, green beans and root vege are served in a lush and nutty korma sauce, alongside charred garlic naan. You don’t need to be a vegetarian to enjoy Sid Sahrawat’s desserts, which always surprise with sweet, savoury and textural elements – in this case it’s chocolate ice cream sitting under dehydrated mandarin, hazelnut crumb and slivers of fresh blood orange.
There are plenty of tofu and vegetable dishes with chef Lek Trirattanavatin’s signature spicy, salty, sweet, sour Northern Thai treatment at Saan. But we are particularly excited about their new weekend brunch, which sees a handful of Thai breakfast dishes hitting the menu – with all of the dishes on offer available as a vegetarian option. Try the pad see ew: chewy rice noodles, smoky from the char of the wok, are mixed with Asian greens and topped with a crispy wok-fried egg, then served with two kinds of chilli on the side for spicing it up. If that’s not enough to wake you up, try a Thai-spiced Bloody Mary or a sweet and milky Thai iced tea.
Italian offerings that make seasonal produce the star
True to their Italian ethos of fresh, seasonal and simple cuisine, the vegetarian offerings at Amano are made using carefully sourced produce, resulting in maximum flavour. For your protein hit, start with something from the dairy section of the menu, where light, creamy cheeses – mozzarella, burrata and stracciatella – are paired with herbs, shaved vegetables, nuts and lashings of fine olive oil. Amano’s pastas are handmade that day and the selection always includes a handful of vegetarian options. Gnocchi, gnudi and ravioli are currently paired with spring vege and often topped with an egg or cheese to finish off the sauce. The vegetable section of the menu offers plenty of variety, ranging from raw and cooked salads such as courgettes, mint, caper and sesame, or charred lettuce, cultured cream and dill; through to more substantial vege like red rascal potatoes with mint butter; and chargrilled asparagus with tarragon and parmesan.
Proving that vegetarian food needn’t have no soul, the vegetarian menu at Baduzzi features comfort food classics such as golden-brown and molten hot eggplant parmigiana alongside vege interpretations of some of their handmade pasta dishes. The vibrant red beetroot pappardelle is earthy and moreish, served with salt-baked beetroot, oyster mushroom and a soft quail egg which adds to the silky sauce when broken. There’s also saffron and potato tortellini, balanced with the tang of goat’s curd, brown butter, and sticky confit figs; and a vegetarian version of the restaurant’s ubiquitous polpette (meatballs).
Enjoy fresh, seasonal vegetarian bites from the trolley service
Kyle Street and Jordan MacDonald work closely with their suppliers seeking out the tastiest – and not always prettiest – produce. This approach, along with a low-waste style of cooking, sees them coming up with resourceful vegetable dishes where flavour reigns supreme. Their Taste of Culprit vegetarian menu (available on request) swaps out the meat for seasonal vegetables and changes often, according to what the chefs are working with. You’ll get four trolley bites that have been tweaked to omit the meat, showcasing product from their trusted suppliers, followed by a riff on Culprit’s lamb dish for the main course, swapping it out for eggplant. On the side, try their killer waffle fries and vibrant parsley mayo, and their ugly carrot with smoked yoghurt. The menu rounds out with a steamed ginger kiss, but as you’ve eaten all your veges, we suggest you order a couple more desserts. The treats at Culprit are whimsically presented and an absolute joy to eat – try the labneh and Philadelphia cheesecake with tamarillo compote and cookie crumbs, or the Whittaker’s peanut slab mousse, showered with caramel corn and topped with a swirl of soft serve.
Also in the city, with glittering views of the super yachts, Soul boasts a lengthy vegetarian menu featuring classic dishes that are as timeless as the restaurant itself. With a lean towards Italian flavours, the menu takes seasonal vegetables – edible spring blossoms, snap peas and asparagus are all making an appearance now – and works them into robust salads and comforting pasta dishes. Sit outside beneath the canopy of hanging flowers and order retro favourites such as Caesar salad, macaroni and cheese, and the cannelloni stuffed with butternut and ricotta.
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