Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thinking inside the box

A few years into writing comedy for a living I discovered something amazing. The more restrictions you have on what you can write, the more creative you become. Forget blue sky thinking, the best way to write a great joke is to be told it has to be about a llama, and can’t use the letter E, and has to rhyme, and can’t mention any aspect of the llama.

Great vegetarian food is a bit like that. The more restrictions a chef has, the more creative and innovative he has to be. Under those conditions, average chefs turn out average food, which is why vegetarianism has such a horrible reputation. If the only meatless cuisine you ever try is a vege stack that tastes of plate and Countdown haloumi, I can’t really blame you for fantasizing about bacon.

The Heritage Hotel in Auckland, weirdly, has a really expansive vegetarian (actually, vegan) menu at its flagship restaurant Hectors (I think it’s called that because there’s nothing meat eaters like better than hectoring vegetarians about their life choices). The chef does really incredible things (pictured above)  – like decorating the plate with beetroot paint, and creating ‘black olive soil’ and avoiding dairy by making his cheese completely out of nuts. This is fine dining vegan and definitely worth a look if you want to see how good that style can be.

Clooney and the Grove both offer vegetarian degustations worthy of the name too. If you have a gf or (unlikely unless he’s Hindu) a bf who doesn’t eat any meat, take them to one of those places for a big splash night out. They’ll make it up to you in the bedroom later, if they can muster the energy (ha ha ha, but actually on the whole vegetarians who eat widely have more energy than meat eaters because they get the precise blend of amino acids they need to build a complete protein diet from a combination of plant foods and to be honest we get way too much protein than we need these days anyway and that’s why we get all these horrible modern diseases haven’t you read The China Study no me neither I couldn’t be bothered but I read the back cover and that’s pretty much what it says).

And then last week I ate the vegetarian menu at the Matterhorn in Wellington. It’s on for a limited time and every sitting is sold out – that’s how Wellingtonians roll – but the chef is apparently open to the idea of offering it beyond Visa Wellington on a Plate. So cross your fingers. Your pale, anemic fingers.

It starts with beet tartare – yep, sounds like beef tartare, and tastes a bit like it too with the zing of mustard and tart tang of capers. It looks like beef tartare too, apparently, although that’s hard to prove in a candlelit room where darkness is the only colour. A perfect circle of goats curd custard follows, it’s cheesy sweetness punctuated by green tomatoes and freshened up with a pretty little ring of herbs and things.

Then it’s baked potato consomm√©. They save the skins from the main menu’s mashed potato and use them to flavour a stock – an incredibly wholesome, potato skinny flavour which is really, really special. You eat it with a spoon then eat the black rice that’s been soaking it all up.

We’re getting a bit blow-by-blow here so I’ll stop listing stuff. But other highlights include a riceless risotto (this drew much scorn on Twitter when I mentioned it, but you get a lot of the texture of risotto without having to eat the white death that is white rice. Haven’t you read the China Study? No, me neither, but apparently there’s a short synopsis of it online I’ve been meaning to look up) and an eight texture chocolate dessert. The picture above is of nothing I've mentioned, isn't that helpful. Bloody wine matching.

But yeah, my plug’s not going to do them any good now because they’re all sold out for the festival. Time to hector the Matterhorn into extending the season, methinks. Vegetarians rise up! Okay sit down again, save your energy for the bedroom.