Restaurant Review: Plant-Based Eatery Forest Is One Of Auckland's Most Exciting New Openings
Forest might be hard to find, but its thoughtful plant-based food is well worth the adventure
Address: 177 Symonds St
From the menu: Set menu $55 - burnt tomato and lettuce taco; potato gnocchi; Banana bread with plum jam
Drinks: Fully licensed
Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don't delay.
Forest is in an unlikely spot, so unlikely that I bike past it every day but have never noticed there's a restaurant there. Even the day I went searching for it I cycled along the footpath slowly and deliberately, but still couldn't spot it. You'd have more chance of stumbling over the place in an actual forest.
Once you're inside things improve quickly. As you'd expect from the name, the decor is all timber and plants. The vibe is very good — slightly more adult than a cafe, it nonetheless has that sort of casual but thoughtful feel. The music is loud but apparently expertly chosen because it never gets in the way of chat.
There's no bar — all of the food and drink supplies are stored in a tidy kitchen which you walk through to get to the toilet. In fact the dining room is so sparely stacked that for a moment I thought they didn't serve alcohol at all. Thankfully I was wrong: I can eat plants, or I can be sober, but I can't do both.
Forest fits in well with the other new openings of the last few months: Celeste around the corner, Lilian on Richmond Rd and natural wine bar Clay too, probably. But the one it reminds me of most is Wellington's Rita — my favourite restaurant in New Zealand and a genuinely new way of eating out.
Like Rita, Forest offers a three-course set menu only, though you can add a side or two if you're feeling hungry. The menus are handwritten each night and create a sense the chef is proud and excited to be cooking only with the ingredients which appealed to her on the day (that "her" is intentional by the way — I was surprised and delighted to see the woman cooking is the same person I've seen working in the open kitchen at Kokako for the past few years, serving a vegetarian apprenticeship which seems the perfect preparation for this more ambitious evening menu).
Nothing feels too worthy, thank God. The list of daily cocktails is chalked on a blackboard and all sound incredible — I can confirm that the pickled cherry, cherry blossom and gin is a great, tart aperitif to nurse while you decompress, and the "broad bean, vanilla and rum" is creamy like a flip, more of a mouthful than I was expecting but unique in the city as far as I'm aware.
You can find yourself waiting to be served which is unusual in a room this small, but the whole business seems to be a two-hander operation, so what you miss in constant attention is made up for by the personal connection the server has with the restaurant, the drinks list and the food.
That food is really brilliant. A bowl of popcorn to start is a bit of a stutter — sweet like commercial caramel corn, it's dusted in cayenne so fine that you inhale it rather than taste it, leading to a coughing fit from which it's hard to recover. But everything after that is pretty much perfect, a varied and clever menu of treats both familiar and unexpected, which never leaves you wishing you'd gone somewhere with meat.
Forest proudly lists its partnership suppliers, including Mahoe Cheese whose complex and beautiful blue is the key ingredient in the gnocchi main course. I wonder what the vegans get (you can tick a box on booking to let them know you're not doing any animal products) though I suspect they do okay: a side of deep fried green beans came with a (presumably egg-free) seaweed mayo that tasted so much of the ocean it could have been a Russian crab salad.
The entree was a lettuce taco filled with fresh summer treats, including burnt tomato and a fermented celery which had been stewing just long enough to get a light lactic hit but could easily have been funkier. It came with avocado, mint and, like most things here, a big hit of spice.
For better or for worse you have to have dessert when you're on a set menu and this one is very good, a solid if unremarkable banana bread which lights up with a big wedge of rosemary butter and an almost berry-ish plum jam. I planned on having just a couple of bites but ended up wolfing the whole thing.
$55 is a steal for three courses of food of this standard, so can I conclude by imploring the plant-based eaters of Auckland to book in here as soon as possible. We often hear that options are limited for people who don't eat meat and yet none of the vegos I know have eaten here yet. Why not? This is one of the most exciting restaurants in Auckland, and with any luck those who've been sluggish about booking a table will find it difficult to get in once word gets around.