Jan 30, 2024 Restaurants
I often think of food as existing on a spectrum with two extremes: survival and nutrition on one side, art and creativity on the other. At the former end, I think of uber-healthy, Silicon Valley-inspired low-calorie, high-nutrient life hacking. Supplements, Soylent and green juice. On the other, the post-Noma extremes of fine dining — food so conceptual and visual that you could be excused for thinking that flavour is far from the top priority of its creation or consumption. Mould, ash and live insects. While each type has its time and place, neither end of the spectrum — brutalist nutrition or avant-gastronomy — is primarily known for deliciousness. When I saw the menu of the new revamped, relocated, reopened Forest and imagined a dinner there — a witloof taco, perhaps, followed by kūmara and “Marmite cream”, maybe with a side of fries and “toasted chilli goop” — I quietly feared a dining experience that would somehow land on the far side of the spectrum, though I wasn’t sure which end.
Chef Plabita Florence’s restaurant began its life, as many restaurants do these days, as a pop-up bouncing around town before settling into its first Symonds St home as a vegetarian and vegan fine-dining-ish restaurant with a set menu. The new Forest — a beautifully renovated space, full of sustainable woods and welcoming plants, refreshingly un-minimalist with its bold green and purple paint job (with enough off-white to take the edge off) — in what used to be a hairdressers on Dominion Rd, has been reincarnated as a more (dare I say it) traditional à la carte restaurant. Still vegan and vegetarian (bonus points given for refusing to engage with that suspiciously vague term ‘plant-based’), Forest now offers a more stable and predictable menu that seems to take the restaurant’s set-menu phase as R&D for a more approachable, casual and flexible style of dining. You can now recommend it to a friend (or a reader) with a reasonable certainty about what will be on offer should they follow your recommendation. Still, the menu is short and a couple dining at Forest would probably end up ordering a good two-thirds of the menu. A party of three or more would be best just to order the whole thing.
On a cold night, warmed by being in a full, buzzing restaurant, we started with cocktails — a salty yuzu vodka martini and an apple and sorrel whiskey sour — followed a cup of a slightly sweet onion broth with little chunks of quickly melting halloumi, dropped before service, so their texture changed as you made your way through the cup. It was an oddly satisfying pairing of liquids — savoury cocktails with sweet vegetable broth — setting the stage for what was to come. Then to the aforementioned witloof taco. Rather than being the dry, bitter leaf stuffed with chunky, homestyle pickles of my fears (a hand salad more than a taco), it was a cool, crisp lettuce shell containing a crunchy-on-the-outside-moist-in-the-middle corn nugget (reminiscent of the fish-finger-esque Baja fish tacos), topped with a herbaceous ‘goop’ and finely sliced pickles. It was inventive and novel — probably nutritious, too — but definitely tasty. My fears, I realised, were misplaced.
The main ‘main’ on offer the night we went (the menu is still subject to change regularly, although more dishes remain constant than in the set-menu era) and the highlight of the meal was that kūmara with peas and Marmite. The purple kūmara was large and steak-like, caramelised on the outside but not mushy-soft, so it held up to the fermented peas, which were plentiful enough on the plate to be considered a supporting actor rather than a side component. In between this medley of comforting, Sunday-roast-esque vegetables was the Marmite cream, a smooth, lucious twist on that familiar yeasty-salty-savoury spread that still mystifies those outside of the former British Empire.
We paired the kūmara with a green salad with nuts and cheese — tied together with a slightly spicy dressing of jalapeño pickle juice (which I have now started adding to my own salad dressings) — and the Brussels sprouts — beautifully fried to a salty, bitter crisp — served with a savoury lentil cream and a tart, sticky coffee sauce. While the sharing of dishes (through nobody’s fault but our own) did eventually turn our plates into a mixed-up mess of different vegetables and perhaps unforeseen combinations of dressings and sauces and creams, it all came together like the best kind of dinner-party meal, though one cooked by a chef who can not only expertly combine various high-level techniques but has spent more time fermenting and pickling than even a skilled hobbyist could.
If you thought all this would be paired with some cloudy, orange wine with a faux-naive watercolour label (an understandable assumption to make given the dominance of such wine lists across the city), you’d be mistaken. In an oddly refreshing move, Forest’s wine list is, while still interesting and varied, on the more ‘conventional’ (a wine term nearly as meaningless as ‘natural’) side of things. I enjoyed a medium-sweet riesling from Felton Road, a stone-fruity delight which beautifully stood up to, and complemented, the full-flavoured, fermented, vinegary vegetables.
We finished with a soft, warm ginger pudding, served with gently melted canelé ice cream, topped with a soy sauce caramel, which somehow perfectly tied the meal together with flavour callbacks to the opening cocktail (the salt), the cup of onion broth (the sweet) and the Marmite cream (the umami). It was as if they knew what we would order and had it all planned out. Maybe a short à la carte menu is just a set menu with the illusion of choice (and perhaps one or two dishes left out). Either way, I was entirely won over.
Walking home from the restaurant, I thought about my silly food spectrum, and wondered if Forest somehow sat perfectly in the middle. The cooking was technical and skilful, with enough flourishes that you felt you were experiencing the output of a talented chef’s creativity, but never at the expense of an enjoyable ease, an undeniable deliciousness. And while the food was unmistakably vegetable-forward (there was no you’d-never-guess-this-isn’t-meat trickery going on) and nutritious, it never felt like nutrition or adherence to a diet or lifestyle was the point. It felt like food meant to make people happy. What more could you ask for?
243 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
Wed — Sat 5 — 10pm
Starters $8 — $14
Mains $22 — $34
Desserts $15 — $18