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.


  1. Must remember not to read your blogs in the office. Keep getting weird looks whenever I let out a little giggle.

    1. Well, you should be doing your work instead of mindlessly surfing the interweb. The mortuary isn't going to run itself...

  2. I know plenty of male vegetarians!

    I got to try some of the dishes from this a while back, they're incredible - admittedly, I don't have any other vegetarian degustations to compare it to (not many degustations, full stop) but the constant inventiveness and use of textures and flavours and such is pretty damn excellent. And I would do dark things to get hold of some more of that goat's cheese custard.

  3. My mother tried the vegetarian courses at Sidart and really enjoyed it, Merediths do vegetarian on request too?

  4. Great post, as usual, but am now consumed with curiosity as to a joke about a llama. Have clearly reached wine limit for the evening

  5. Haa ... don't lose sleep, it was just a hypothetical. For more on restrictions on creativity, check out Eliot Weinberger on Icelandic poetry http://jacketmagazine.com/06/wein-form.html

  6. The Grove's vege deg is AMAZING. I'm not vegetarian (...more like vegetable oriented) but I've only ever done vege degustations (Tribeca's one is also amazing) and doubt I'd ever do a meat one if there was an alternative. Like you say, the restriction breeds creativity and at that level of dining the results are so impressive.

    Btw, been reading for a while and a viewer of 7 Days, big fan of yours!

  7. great vegetarian menus are great. My wife is a vegetarian and our going out is usually based on how good the vegetarian dish is on the menu. We point blank refuse to go anywhere that does the lazy brain mushroom risotto, be it wild or not. There are amazing things to be done with vegetarian food so every chef should make an effort

  8. Isn't it called Hectors after the bird that used to live on the top floor of the old Farmers building?

  9. The laziness of some chefs when it comes to putting interesting vegetarian and vegan cuisine on their menu is one of my pet peeves.

    Wellington is TERRIBLE for this. You might think that a town with a reputation for being both a) full of good restaurants and b) full of alternative types, would have decent vegan eating out options, but you would be wrong.

    It really is a shame, because cooking amazing vegan food isn't exactly reinventing the goddamn wheel; I do it every day in my kitchen at home, ffs. You'd think that a trained chef wouldn't fall flat on their face when asked to do without meat or dairy. It's just about knowing what to do with fresh produce, and maybe learning to work with a few new ingredients. Pretty basic stuff.


  10. Tell me about it Lissa. I suspect vegetarian chefs in the restaurant industry are treated with the same open-minded respect as gay men are at rugby clubs.

  11. But I really want to hear the joke about the Ilama, please