Vegetarian and fine dining enthusiast Alice Neville has had her fill of mushroom risotto.
Over the past five years, I’ve eaten at a lot of Auckland restaurants. From flash-in-the-pan to old favourites, from cheap and cheerful to dégustation, I’ve stuffed my face at many, many eateries in this fine town of ours.
Apologies if that comes across as a (not so) #humblebrag, but my point is this: I’m well qualified to tell you that vegetarian dining has improved markedly in Auckland. But we still have a way to go.
I’ve never really eaten meat — not since I was a child, anyway, and even then I wasn’t that into it. It’s not an ethical choice, more an innate personal preference. I have no problem with other people eating meat, I just don’t fancy it myself. (I’ve tried, god knows I’ve tried — for the good of my food-writing career, you see — but it’s just not for me.)
When I started my first food-focused media job six years ago, plant-based eating was not yet a thing. Back then, we just called it vegetarianism. It wasn’t exactly rare — this is 2013 we’re talking about, not 1983 — and yes, many places catered well to meat-free diners. But many others seemed to have made a choice not to, which they wore as a badge of honour, a sign of their commitment to the nose-to-tail life, of their allegiance to their macho chef idols: if you don’t eat everything, you’re essentially a wimp and a fraud and a loser.
A few hardcore adherents to those views remain, but for the most part, dining out has become easier, and more enjoyable, for us meat-free folk. Why? Our increasing numbers have certainly played a part — surveys have charted a steady rise in New Zealanders ditching the meat in recent years. We’re no longer as easy to ignore, but as we still make up only around 4 per cent of the population, if you believe the lowest estimates, or 10.3 per cent if you go with the highest, our voice remains pretty small.
It’s the fact that many of the rest of you — you people who still enjoy your chicken teriyaki, your cheeky cheeseburger, your finest artisan prosciutto every now and then — are making a conscious effort to reduce meat consumption, too. People want to eat less meat, which means they want more meatless options on the menu, and restaurants are taking notice.
It’s not just giving the customers what they want, though. With the spectre of climate change getting more terrifying by the day, and increasing evidence that intensive animal agriculture plays a pretty big part in it, chefs themselves are perhaps realising that those annoying vegos had a point all along. It’s getting harder to argue that eating less meat is a bad thing, and those who persist in framing it as an assault on the backbone of our nation are losing credibility.
So what does a restaurant that is “good for vegetarians” look like? It’s a broad church, embracing everything from bars to fine-diners. What unites them is an understanding that vegetables are delicious when treated correctly, but also that vegetables alone don’t often make a full meal. Give us veges absolutely bursting with flavour, yes, but don’t forget to give us protein and please — dear god, please — give us carbs.
OK, not all vegetarians — not all people, let’s be honest — love carbs as much as I do, and it’s true that the vegetarians of yore were often lumped with dishes big on carbs but little else. Many a vegetarian has felt their heart sink when presented with yet another flavourless, stodgy mushroom risotto. But, for me, anyway, the other end of the spectrum is just as disheartening. Because if I come in for dinner, I don’t want a side dish. They may be (and regularly are) delicious, but they’re called side dishes for a reason: they’re not a meal.
During my recent judging stint for Restaurant of the Year, my worst eating experience was at a long-running establishment that has many loyal fans. It had often been cited to me as somewhere that “is good for vegos”, and perhaps, five or 10 years ago, it was. My recent experience was somewhat different, however.
All the vegetarian dishes — and by all I mean the grand total of three — were listed on the menu as entrées, which was the first warning sign. I chose one of them, a dish of heirloom carrots, to be my main. It was, bar a few accoutrements, a plate of carrots, and appeared to have been cooked by someone with a vendetta against carrots; someone who wanted to punish the carrots, or, perhaps, to punish me. Under-seasoned, overcooked. And the price? $45. This restaurant did not make our Top 50.
The curse of no-meatless-mains struck me more than once during this year’s judging journey, but one such instance turned out to be my best eating experience of the lot. They might have been entrées and sides at Waiheke’s Three Seven Two, winner of our Best Destination award, but my god, they were good. Stracciatella cheese, figs, fennel, sunflower seeds (pictured above). Shiitake and oyster mushroom dumplings, horseradish cream, kale. Grilled Palermo peppers, polenta, sweetcorn, basil, buffalo mozzarella. Battered crispy cabbage with curry leaves and aioli (see main image). That’s just a selection, but every dish was pitch perfect, designed and made by someone who clearly understood meat-free cooking.
So by all means, restaurants of Auckland, give us vegetables, but show them the respect they deserve. And, hey, maybe throw in a meatless main every now and then. As long as it’s not mushroom risotto.
This piece originally appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of Metro magazine.