Expect the Unexpected at Auckland Restaurant Month

Top of trends at Auckland Restaurant Month is vegetarian food. But, as Geraldine Johns discovers, expect the unexpected


Clooney in Freemans Bay. Picture / Babiche Martens.

In the dreaded dining-out days of yore, a no-meat diet meant no fun too. Out the door, along with the flesh, went anything in the way of imagination, zest or variety. To declare yourself a vegetarian in a restaurant was to surrender: to withering stares and variations on rice. There was no other option.

True, the odd dedicated vegetarian address did its best (the whiff of patchouli still lingers). But only the batik brigade got a regular look-in. And even the most dedicated could only stomach so much spanakopita.

So what’s this then? Entire menus dedicated to vegetarian dining in all its gloriousness. Marginalisation is out; mainstream meat-free dishes are now fixed menu items. Thank God.

Thank you, too, to Restaurant Month, which is shining a particularly bright light on the delights of dining al veggo.

Let’s start with one of the champions. Yael Shochat would not like to call vegetarianism a movement: for her it’s a way of life. The owner of Ima in downtown Auckland says she’s on a crusade to get people to eat more vegetables. To that end, she ditched her regular menu three years ago, and instead offered an Israeli, family-style sharing way of dining. Here, salads are the centrepiece. Protein is the side.

That stance takes some defending at her Fort St address. “Sometimes I’ve had to show them the door,” she says of those who have taken issue with her approach to food.

More fool the ones who’ve walked. When she says “salad”, we are not talking lettuce. We are instead salivating over suggestions such as the slightly spicy chopped tomato salad with beetroot, radish, red onion and chilli, dressed with pomegranate molasses and chilli. Or what about the orange concoction: Tunisian grilled carrot with feta?

There’s a vegan option too. “We’re not a vegetarian restaurant — but we are so heavily focused on the vegetables,” says Yael — who practices what she preaches. She’s not a vegetarian herself: “but I find the protein quite boring. And I think we eat too much meat.” Ima’s Restaurant Month menu is really no different to what’s regularly on offer, Yael says. “It’s par for the course, but I’m just giving them a better deal.”

Over at Clooney, owner Tony Stewart is wondering whether in the past people were reluctant to go out if they were vegetarian because they didn’t want to make a fuss. “Or were they just not being catered for?” he asks.

Clooney has had a vegetarian tasting menu on offer for some five years. It’s been incredibly well-received, Tony says. No wonder. Consider, for example, option five in the seven-course line-up: celeriac, condensed mushroom and farro. And there are regular meat-free mentions on the main menu too.

By way of illustration, as part of Restaurant Month, and continuing into September for some dishes, Clooney has decided to make this even more of a star feature. On offer is a seven-course vegetarian menu that will tempt the most dedicated of carnivores. It starts with a bang (silken buffalo curd, ginger and butternut) and finishes with a flourish: burnt buffalo milk and Valrhona chocolate. Take a bow, pastry chef Ben Chevre (true) who collaborated with executive chef Des Harris for this concoction.

Ima and Clooney are just two of an unprecedented number of restaurants participating in a veg-fest for Restaurant Month. Others include the newly-refurbished Soul Bar and Bistro (whose mentions include a particularly appealing parsley spaghettini with fennel and onion broth, semi-dried tomatoes and yuzu kosho). In fact, it looks like the whole wide world is covered in this quest: Cafe Hanoi, Ebisu, Hector’s, Tanuki Sushi and Sake Bar, and Besos Latinos have also got in on the act.

• To find out more about Auckland Restaurant Month and booking details, go to heartofthecity.co.nz

PLUS DON’T MISS:

Onam Vegetarian Festival
Join the team from Ela Cuisine in Elliott Stables for their annual Restaurant Month vegetarian extravaganza. This year’s celebration features a degustation of 15 vegetarian food items including pappadums, banana chips, jaggery chips, mango chutney, chilli, erisserry, thoran, mezhukkupuratty, aviyal, sambhar, mooru and if you have room, at least four more! (Sunday, August 28, 11.30am, 12.30pm, 1.30pm and 2.30pm sessions. Ela Cuisine, Elliott Stables, 39-41 Elliott St. Tickets $30.)

Megan May Masterclass
Megan is the creator of Little Bird Organics, the award-winning Unbakery cafes and the bestselling The Unbakery cookbook and recipe app. Join her for a 90 minute, fine-dining raw organic food experience. See how to make and taste some her favourite dishes from cold-pressed cocktails to a sumptuous chocolate dessert, all made without gluten, dairy and refined sugars. (Saturday, August 20, 5pm. Social Kitchen Theatre pop-up, Takutai Square, Britomart. Tickets $60.)

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Auckland Restaurant Month is an amazing opportunity to get up close with some of our top chefs and talent. Head to The Social Kitchen Theatre. and join in masterclasses with the likes of Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seiobo, Kyle Street of Depot and Federal Delicatessen fame, Gareth Stewart from Euro, Jason Van Dorsten from Cafe Hanoi and more. (August 19-21, from 8am-9pm, Takutai Square, Britomart.)

One of the more stylish events on the calendar is the High Tea & Fashion at Hotel Debrett. Gather a group of friends and enjoy a sophisticated high tea while perusing the latest fashion from Hudson Boutique. (Sunday, August 21, 3pm. Tickets $75. To book, ph 09 925 9000.

For something a little more substantial, make a date with six-courses of bellissima Italian cucina with Melbourne restaurant legend Guy Grossi at A Taste of Grossi Florentino at Ostro. With multiple restaurants, cookbooks and TV appearances under his belt, Guy is firmly regarded as an Australian food legend. (Wednesday, August 24, 6pm. Tickets $240 from iTicket.)

Realise your cheese dreams at The Big Cheese with Sean Connolly at The Grill, Federal St, when he prepares a three-course cheese-inspired long lunch. A new release of tickets to this previously sold-out event is now available so don’t miss this second chance at fromage heaven. (Saturday, August 27, 1pm. Tickets $120 from iTicket.)

There are even more events and more than 100 special menus to suit every appetite from now until the end of August. For full details, go to heartofthecity.co.nz

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