Thursday, 26 June 2014

Vegan Tasting Menu at Sono Portside

A couple of weeks ago, we were invited by Lindsay Bennett marketing to attend Sono Portside to experience their tasting menu. I promptly replied with "Will they do something vegan?" and was pleasantly surprised to hear that they were happy to come up with a vegan tasting menu.

Sono Portside is the sister restaurant of Sono Brisbane CBD (in the Queen Street Mall), opened some 10 years later with a slightly more modern look, but the same commitment to tradition. We had a brief chat with the owner of both restaurants who considers himself simply an "coordinator", someone who organises the best of the best for the various areas of the restaurant (waitstaff, bar, restaurant (in fact, he noted that many of the chefs are brought over from Japan)). Rather than chasing food trends, and aiming to find the latest Japanese "fusion cuisine", Sono's aim is to provide a consistent and traditional Japanese restaurant experience, with a menu that has slowly evolved, but rarely changed, over the years that both restaurants have been trading.

We all slowly gathered in the bar, where we each enjoyed a libation of our choosing. When everyone had arrived, we were ushered into one of the private tatami rooms, which meant our shoes had to come off (I was very glad I had picked non-holey socks, not that I have any holey socks, that's crazy who would do that). Once we were all seated, and had wisely opted to do the matched wines/sake, the meal began.

First course: pumpkin with edamame and tofu in broth. I thought the edamame could have been much more salty, but I absolutely adored the tofu in broth: delicious!

Second course: assorted sushi with wasabi and pickled ginger. Yes, I finished off that whole lump of wasabi and, yes, I couldn't talk for about 10 minutes afterwards. But hello clean sinuses!

Third course: eggplant with miso. The slice of eggplant was a little thicker than I'm used to having it (and made it difficult to eat with chopsticks!), but it fell apart and melted in your mouth, and had absolutely no bitterness. The miso was quite thick, so it will difficult to eat without getting too much miso in every second bite, but as a big miso fan, I was pretty happy with that. 

Fourth course: mixed vegetable tempura. This photo doesn't really capture how beautiful it looked when it came out. Not at all oily, and delightfully crispy.

Fifth course: tofu, shiitake mushrooms and mixed vegetables in teriyaki sauce, with miso soup side. As I'm sitting here writing this, the cold air is blasting through the windows and I just want to jump inside these photos and have this dish again. The teryaki sauce was well balanced, and mushrooms and vegetables were perfectly cooked and SO MUCH DELICIOUS TOFU. I don't think I've ever eaten this much protein at a non-vegetarian restaurant. I nearly cried. This was also the only course that had it's own matching wine distinct from the omnivore courses. The miso soup was also lovely. I think I may go and make some now.

Dessert: fruit salad. Eh.

Matt trying to convince Charelle to top him up a little more
What stood out most for me during the whole meal was the service. We were served Charelle, who managed to perfectly be present when ever we needed her, but then seemingly disappear when she knew we didn't. Before each meal was served, she gave a detailed description of the wine or sake matched with each course, including how it would match with the dish. She was also sure to inform us that they weren't sure about the fining agents for some of the wines, something with a number of sommeliers (from our experience!) are apparently ignorant about! She was truly wonderful and is such an asset to the restaurant.

The food, for me, was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I found several of the dishes felt rushed in their conception, or weren't quite flavoursome enough for my tastes. This is a common complaint amongst restaurants offering vegan options (even in vegan restaurants, to be honest), however, and is often easily fixed with a bit of practice and feedback. The biggest disappointment was, of course, the fruit salad (especially as the omnivores had brownies with chocolate sauce!). On the other hand, it is probably the most protein-rich meal I have had at a non-veg restaurant in Brisbane (I was particularly pleased that they didn't skimp on the tofu for the final savoury course; I actually left satisfied!), and many of the individual elements of some of the courses were wonderful.

As for drinks, I couldn't name a single wine or sake we had on the night (which is why Charelle has the job, not me!), but all were wonderful. Though most of the wines were only matched to the omnivore menu, I was very pleased that our "main" had it's very own wine matched to it.

Finally, I could not find one thing to complain about with the decor and ambiance; it strikes a fine balance between traditional and modern, and though the restaurant was packed, and the door to our private room open, we never had any trouble with noise. The view is also quite lovely, though I was facing the wrong way to enjoy it. (I would suggest, with the cooler weather, wearing some thick socks if you're in the tatami room, though!)

In sum, I had a very enjoyable evening. The menu was diverse (both in flavour and texture) and very protein-rich (and, consequently, satisfying), the drinks were wonderful, and the service and ambience were impeccable.

As we only had the tasting menu (designed for us on the night), I can't comment on how many vegan items are on the regular menu, so I would still recommend calling up in advance to check what's available, or simply calling up to book in for a tasting menu! Portside is close to several bus lines, about a 10 minute walk from the CityCat, and, due to the large number of other venues there, usually has plenty of cabs available, should you choose to also do the matched wine/sake.

Thank you to Lindsay Bennett for the invitation and hosting a delightful evening. It was good to get back in the game and try somewhere new!

Sono Portside
39 Hercules St Hamilton (in the Portside Wharf precinct (where the Dendy is))
3268 6655 | | facebook

Lunch: Wed-Sun, 12pm-2.30pm
Dinner:  Tues-Thurs & Sunday, 6pm-9.30pm; Fri & Sat, 6pm-10pm

Sono was busy when we went (a Tuesday night), so it would probably be wise to make a reservation no matter what day you decide to go. Sono is on the second level of the Portside centre, but is accessible by stairs, an escalator and an elevator. While the bar may provide some accessibility issues, the main seating area would provide no problems, and the entry is quite wide. Other guests on the night included Miss Foodie, Eatin Mess and Food Me Up Scotty.


In unrelated news, I have partnered with Laneway Learning Brisbane to do some cooking classes! It's only about a week til the first class, so I probably should've promoted this a bit earlier but HEY that's life. I will be taking a "breakfast" themed cooking class, where I demonstrate how to make vegan savoury crepes, pancakes, scrambled tofu, and a quick and easy marmalade, and then a dinner class where I demonstrate a couple of entrees (dips, bruschetta), a creamy pasta, and then an easy chocolate pudding.

Each class is limited for about 20 people, so hopefully it's popular and I have to tell you to rush but please rush anyone because it will make me feel good and not nervous, which is how I feel right now!

Register for the breakfast class and/or the dinner class.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Urbane's Vegan Degustation - June 2014

So the other night I had the pleasure of attending Urbane Restaurant for another degustation, under the guidance of Head Chef (and a man I'm proud to call "friend"), Alejandro Cancino.

As many of you would know, Alejandro calls himself "vegan at home". He's a big supporter of the vegan movement and is an excellent example of someone who complements and works with people to achieve progress, rather than shoving propaganda down people's throats and pissing them off. He has successfully opened the eyes (and tastebuds) of many of the food community I've watched scoff at vegan food for years. He's winning over the militant vegans who used to bitch about him for cooking meat at Urbane. He's also The Queensland Good Food Guide 2013 Chef of the Year. The fact that he's hugely inspirational, animated, and a really lovely guy doesn't hurt either.

For those of you who haven't been to Urbane in a while, you'll notice less of a focus on molecular gastronomy than when Kym Machin (The Queensland Good Food Guide 2012 Chef of The Year!) was at the helm. Kym is another of my favourites, now running his own "cafistro" called "Bare Bones Society", which I also highly recommend. Kym is also an immensely talented Chef  - particularly with vegan food. 

Below are the 8 courses (plus bread, amuse bouche, and bonuses) we were served. My companion was enjoying the omnivore degustation at the same time, so some of the amuse bouche were mixed vegan/omnivore. We were both really, really impressed by the fact that the vegan degustation was not missing anything or "less than". Both omnivore and vegan degustations were totally on par in terms of taste, texture and flavour enjoyability. 

I'm going to keep the commentary light - my memory fails me because I was enjoying it so much in the moment - and you know the food was good - I don't need to tell you that. Dining with Alejandro is an experience I wish everyone could have. Names of menu items are in italics.

Note to other chefs reading: it's so great to be able to get creamy sauces, potato, charred flavour, and a variety of proteins (and I'm not talking three cashews over 10 courses), in an upscale restaurant. Please consider this when feeding vegans - it really helps add that missing component and stops us leaving your restaurant unsatisfied.

The service was good - in particular, a charming, infectiously kind bearded man, and a very efficient blonde woman. However, I was a little unsure how to take our first waiter's comment of "here you go, Brisbane's finest" when he brought our tap water, to the table, though, with an odd smile. I may be humourless at times, but that's not generally the first introduction I expect from a waiter in a fine dining restaurant.

Overall, A winner, as always, and so far, the best degustation I've attended at Urbane.

Shitake consommé. This was perfect. Such a delicious, umami broth, holding the best dumpling I've ever eaten. Mushroom richness with the dial turned up to 1000.

Coffin bay oyster with wasabi and pea broth (omnivore) alongside potato and sesame thing. Like a really fancy potato chip. I would love to eat a bag of them, let me tell you. Even whilst running the risk of ending up with many sesame seeds in my beard.

(Right) four week pickled carrots. A nice segue-way between dishes.

Smoked corn... dust? Became instantly creamy in the mouth. Very cool.

Tofu, ponzu. Avocado, capsicum. The tofu in ponzu, kim chi and toasted buckwheat was interesting, but I found the vinegaryness of the broth a little overpowering, especially when previous dishes had gone along these lines. The thing in the middle - a sort of latin american spiced AWESOMENESS with the avocado was really something to behold. This is where the art comes in - something so small and simple has no room for error - and there was no error. Perfection.

Just bread, right? No way. Rich, dense, chewy, incredibly moreish bread studded with macadamias. I knew this was going to fill me up, but still couldn't stop.

Quinoa, cucumber, apple. Varieties of cucumber preparation, in a creamy sauce with quinoa and a char. A really interesting variety of textures, and the toasty quinoa was really unique.

Onion, macadamia, dill. Onion and dill, in a macadamia cream sauce. The omnivore version was served in a beurre blanc, but we both agreed that this was the winner. So creamy and delicious.

King brown mushroom, kombu, dashi, wasabi. The mushrooms were so delicate, smooth, and toothsome - really artfully prepared.

Tempeh, jerusalem artichoke, lime. Local tempeh by our friends at "Totally Tempeh" prepared in a really inventive way - crumbled and toasted/sautéed to perfect brownness. Jerusalem artichoke too, which is something I don't prepare at home. Nice and savoury.

Turnip, potato, onion. Parsnip, smashed potato (yes, yes, yes!) and onion. Some interesting flavours and textures in the land of the middle - between light and dark. Lip-smacking but light umami.

Pearl barley, eggplant, mushroom. Mushroom barley risotto with various mushrooms (including "dust"), and eggplant puree. The omnivorous equivalent of this featured lamb, but... this vegan version really knocked my socks off. This vegan dish had the flavours and satisfaction of a naturally charred smoky meat that would impress any omnivore. A real showstopper.

A palate cleanser. Grapefruit gel. Very runny, and so sour. A great opportunity for someone to take photos of me pulling awful faces. I'm super sensitive to sour or bitter, and this almost hurt my feelings.

Local pink lady apple, lemongrass, ginger. (On the menu. Though perhaps this changed before service?) Dessert one. Granny smith apple was the featured ingredient. Sorbet, maybe poached (?) and an almost marshmallow textured sample, topped with dehydrated apple. The marshmallow-y confection was my favourite.

Coconut rice pudding, peanut, raspberry. Coconut sorbet with raspberries, toasted peanuts in a creamy peanut sauce. The sorbet was so rich and creamy, and who can go wrong with peanuts? For the win. A really nice way to end a highly enjoyable evening.

Keep an eye on Alejandro. Every time I see him, he's doing greater and greater things. This man is going to continue to push the boundaries and rise up. Urbane is very lucky to have him, and keeping people on the edge of their seats too, when so many restaurants are playing it safe. Bravo.

You can find our previous post about Urbane here. For more information about dining at Urbane, please see their website. 
Urbane on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Veg Eats in West End

Up until embarrassingly recently, I bemoaned the lack of veg options in West End. It's so hip and alternative and dirty; it should be OVERRUN with vegetarians and food for them!

I spent so much time bemoaning this that I somehow failed to notice how often I was eating there. No longer must vegans be relegated to coping with The Forest (I don't care what anyone tells you; just no) or scrounging options from the outwardly-vegan-friendly-seeming-but-oh-wait-it's-not 3 Monkeys! Go forth, my veg friends, for there is food to be eaten!

I will attempt to keep this post updated as we go more places and existing places add new items. If you have a favourite place that isn't on this list, let us know in the comments so we can check it out!

Note on public transport and parking: All of these places are within a short walk of bus stops serviced by high frequency 199 bus, which can be caught from the city of the Cultural Centre. Most parking on main streets in West End are metered or are short parking, but if you look on side streets, you can sometimes find unmetered parking (for example, Thomas St is metered where it comes off Vulture Street, but is unmetered from about halfway down).

Shop 1/60 Vulture Street (The West Quarter), West End
07 3844 6696 | |
Mon: 11am - 8pm | Tues-Thurs: 11am - 6pm | Fri: 11am - 8pm | Sat: 8am - 8pm
Parking around the back between the shops and the West Quarter Apartments, otherwise there is parking in nearby streets. Right across the road from a bus stop.
Wheelchair accessible from street and parking (there's a ramp next to The Cupcake Parlour, though it is quite narrow and the seating for the Cupcake Parlour is sometimes in the way). All tables are quite high, though the counter is not.
Vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous options available; no gluten free gyoza dumplings though some lunch specials may be gluten free.

Originally, Zagyoza was a stall at a few markets around Brisbane, but a few months ago they finally secured a permanent location in the West Quarter on Vulture Street.

The best part about Zagyoza are their daily lunch specials: $10 gets you either a salad and 4 gyoza, or a hot meal and 3 gyoza. They announce their specials on their facebook page every day around 11am, or you can just turn up and be surprised! I've had some truly fantastic meals here, and it's always something different. Sometimes they won't have a vegetarian or vegan special, so it's good to check the facebook page, but sometimes they'll be able to change the omni special to make it vegan or vegetarian, so it doesn't hurt to ask.

Left: Cold soba noodles with grilled tofu topped with house made BBQ sauce (which I could drink)
Right: Bean sprout and rice noodle salad with capsicum salsa and hot eggplant relish

As well as their permanent shop, they also regularly attend the Mitchelton Markets and the Powerhouse Markets; times they attend these are listed on their website. If you can't wait for them to be open, they also sell frozen take-home packs of gyoza which you can cook up at home (these are also sold at some delis, so find out from them if they're available closer to you). Last but not least, they also do catering trays in case you're having a party, or really want to see if you can eat 100 gyoza in one sitting.


71 Russell St, West End
07 3844 4444 | |
Mon - Sat: 7am - 3pm | Closed Sunday
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. 2 minute walk from Boundary St bus stop.
Shop accessed directly off the street. Interior is quite narrow and tables are pushed quite close together. Meals are ordered and paid for at a counter. A mix of vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous items; some vegetarian items can be made vegan by omitting certain ingredients. Unsure about availability of GF options. Inside, undercover and outside seating.

Matt went here a few months ago, and since then I have returned several times. The menu is small, but manages to pack a lot in (like a wrap! Oh, they're so meta...). The wraps themselves are the most delicious, puffy homemade panbread, and the fillings manage to strike a balance between tasting both wholesome and delicious. Wraps range between $9 and $12, so it makes a good quick lunch on the go (though I have often experienced quite a wait even at quiet times, so if you're in a rush, it's probably worth calling up). The Zen Wrap and Satay Tofu wrap are my favourites.

Unfortunately, there is no information on their website except their location.

El Torito
146 Boundary St, West End
07 3844 5977 | |
Lunch Wed-Fri: 12pm - 2pm
Dinner Tues - Sun: 5:45pm - Late | Kitchen closes at 9pm | Closed Mondays
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. Bus stop is right outside.
Shop accessed directly off the street. Toilets (individual cubicles) are accessible through a narrow doorway and up a bumpy path. There is table service but meals are paid for at a high counter.
Menu entirely omnivorous and vegetarian. Several items can be made vegan by omitting certain toppings. All items are gluten free UNLESS marked on the menu with an *.

Embarrassingly, the first time I tried this, I was desperate for a burrito after... quite a big night. As I'm sure you can imagine, I went on about how good it was, but I didn't return for a number of weeks, at which point we wisely went before drinking.
I cannot even express how delicious the enchiladas at El Torito are. The bean filling is perfectly cooked, soft and flavoursome, topped in an absolutely delicious tomato sauce. Just remember to ask for it without dairy!

There are a number of other items on their menu that look as though they could easily be made vegan, but I cannot go past the enchiladas. They have quite a range of alcoholic drinks available, and among the cheapest cocktails I've seen in a long time.

Burrito for lunch! $9.95
For lunch, they have a range of lunch specials (many of which are shared with their dinner menu; oddly, they don't appear to have a vegetarian burrito option for dinner, only lunch), all of which are $9.95, listed on their website. They have also recently started opening for lunch on weekends.

Otherwise, I cannot recommend highly enough heading there with some friends to share a jug of sangria and some excellent food.

Lock N Load Bistro
142 Boundary St, West End
07 3844 0142 | |
Weekdays: 11am - Late | Weekends: 8am - Late
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. Bus stop is right outside.
Entrance bar and lower dining area are wheelchair accessible (there is a wheelchair lift next to the stairs to the lower dining area). Upper dining area only accessible by stairs. Toilets are in lower dining area. The entrance bar is often crowded at night which may impede accessibility. There is often live music or a DJ, so the bar is quite loud, and sections of the interior aren't very brightly lit.
Menu is largely vegetarian (marked with (v)) and omnivorous, with many gluten free options clearly marked with (gf). Limited vegan options, also marked on menu (with (vv)). Their menu clearly states "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" (this includes sauces: if you ask for the chips without the aioli, they will come with aioli).

Initially, we only went to Lock N Load for their Beer Towers (which we're still suspicious of: is the 3L mark before or after the ice stick is added? And will you really care by the end?), but I was meeting a friend in West End for lunch a few months ago and, having always wanted to try their food, I suggested we meet there.

They only have the one vegan lunch and dinner option (it is also gluten free): sweet potato falafels with a warm quinoa salad, tomatoes, pine nut dressing and mint oil. I was pleasantly surprised as how good it was. They also have one vegan side, a warm cauliflower salad, which I haven't tried. I was sadly disappointed by both their regular "thick cut" fries and their sweet potato fries.

If you're going there for a drink in the evening, we found out from the kitchen that the tofu & shiitake spring rolls are vegan, though it isn't marked on their menu (according to them, this is because they use the same deep fryer for everything that they cook, and vegans probably make more fuss about that than vegetarians. Fair enough).

You can view their menus on their website. If you're feeding a large group of people, you can use their lunch order form to order larger amounts of food, and they also host group events.

And if you happen to be in West End on a Saturday morning, there are the West End Markets, which has it's own post dedicated to it! A little further off the beaten track, and more a destination than a quick lunch/dinner stop, is Mondo Organics, where we tried their vegan tasting menu (remember to book in advance!).

Let us know if you've tried any of these places, or if there's a favourite place of yours in West End that we need to visit and add!