Tuesday, May 29, 2012


May 25, 2012

Marieke has repeatedly recommended Maha for vego fine dining, and Michael decided to take her advice while celebrating his birthday this year. While the restaurant is large, its dark furnishings and loud-ish music lend quite the city bar feel.

I took this as a cue to order a cocktail - our waiter suggested the pomegranate sour ($19) and I'm so glad he did. The egg white froth topping the sweet and sour liquor tasted like icecream - this is one grown-up spider.

The menu is inspired by the Middle East (though you'll certainly see some contemporary tweaks in the dishes we ate) and comes in a range of styles and sizes - the soufra (in 2, 3 or 4 courses) looks more traditional, while the sultans is an extravagant 6 or 8 courses. You can also go a la carte, picking featured items from the other menu. Maha print out a separate vegetarian menu specially, and the staff explicitly asked about dietary requirements twice so other restricted eaters should be well catered to, too.

Michael had us all ordering the 8 course blow-out, though we held off on the matched wine. The meal begins with shot-sized glasses of an iced hibiscus tea.

And bread. Soft, warm, fancy bread. These ones were most notable for their sweetness - I think the round one was lightly spiced with cinnamon.

Our first proper course was a carrot and cumin shourba with carrot cous cous. The soup was surprisingly thick and I couldn't taste much beyond the cumin, which disappointed me.

This medley of breakfast radish, micro carrot, pickled cabbage, mushroom dirt, leaves and saffron yoghurt was pleasant, though I didn't really get the hang of how these ingredients fit together. Mostly I was just distracted by the cabbage's resemblance to raw meat.

I got more into the swing of the seeds, nuts, peas, turnips and beans, swiping in the roast lemon gel and crunching on the goats curd cigar.

The next dish had a similar presentation and was just as likeable - BBQ corn kernels get a little crunch from puffed corn, some depth from smoked almonds, and extra moisture from a corn custard. A silverbeet borek on top adds the extra salty-friedness that I can't resist.

Course number five featured heirloom tomatoes and broken coriander falafel with some unexpected kewpie mayo and toast foam. Though it paired well with the tomatoes, we found the toast foam a little pretentious - hummus would serve the same purpose! - so much so that we barely noticed that kewpie mayo anomaly.

Thankfully there was a longer pause before the final savoury dishes arrived, though we still had no hope of finishing them. The highlight was a stuffed kousa (zucchini) flower - instead of the stock-standard creamy cheese filling, this one boasted sweetly spiced pumpkin, a surprisingly apt match. I was less enamoured of the mograbiehi - they were chewy, heavy and not full of flavour.

Besides, there were even more carbohydrates on offer, and few compete for my attentions quite like potatoes!

We were also served a fattoush, which was lovely but only served to triple the carb load.

Dessert was not much lighter - our first was a cup lined with baklava crumbs containing peanut butter parfait, salted caramel, chocolate sorbet and orange blossom foam. The subtleties of the orange and baklava were lost on me but as a card-carrying supporter of all things chocolate-and-peanut-butter, I was happy.

Our last dish was not diminutive, either - we were served towering pots of white chocolate soufflé with rosemary ice cream and blue berry meringues. While the meringues didn't do much for me, the honeyed flavour of the soufflé paired with the rosemary ice cream was striking; once I'd eaten all the ice cream I lost interest in the remaining third of my soufflé.

As we settled the bill and retrieved our coats, we were left with two parting gifts - vials of ras el hanout and DIY packages of Maha's famous Turkish Delight donuts, no longer on the menu.

It was a mixed meal - some of the flavour combinations were remarkable, while others left me completely indifferent. But we were all resoundingly full! I liked that the service was more casual than at many other high-end restaurants; it felt friendlier and was still sufficiently attentive. (Even so, I'd prefer that they didn't assume the meat meal at our table must be for one of the males and declare that the DIY donut packages were 'for the women'. SMASH THE GENDER BINARY, MAHA.)

Moreover, it's great to notch up another high-end venue that gladly caters to vegos. Though we're unlikely to find the right excuse to return soon, I suspect their soufra menu would be great fun to share with friends.

Fellow veg bloggers Nouveau Potato, The Big V and easy as vegan pie have previously covered Maha, with only the latter having a few gripes.

Blog reviews of Maha are abundant and overwhelmingly positive - see dining nirvana, The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua, Suburban Culinary Adventures, Melbourne Food Snob, La Vino Vida Blog, Almost Always Ravenous, Dangerous Duplicity, Barley Restaurant Reviews, Miss Adriennely, Let Me Feed You Melbourne, amystown, find me a muse, Foodie Diary, Does My Bomb Look Big In This?, please sir, can i have some more, This Food Guy, Petit Miamx, Fill My Belly in Melbourne, One Mouthful, I Don't Bitch I Blog, EAT AND BE MERRY, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE(T), anitaeat, Out of my kitchen, spicy icecream, Moon cheese pie with a cup of starshine, juganaut's foodie thoughts, Journey of an Obsession, My Food Trail, Ooh, Look..., doublecooked, Spatuala, Spoon and Saturday, 1001 Dinners 1001 Nights, The Food Blog, My Belly Is My Friend and Eat Almost Anything. Bloggers report feeling underwhelmed on Sweet and Sour Fork and 8ITES, there's a struggle with service on I Eat Therefore I Am, and food 613 flat out didn't like it.

A few bloggers have been cooking Maha-style at home, too! The Turkish delight donuts appear on Wholesome Cook and Gastronomic Goodies, while Better With Spice made a multi-course feast.

21 Bond St, Melbourne
9629 5900
veg sultans menu, 8 courses, $105

Accessibility: Maha has reasonably spaced tables, is a little dim and loud, and has full table service. The toilets are highly accessible and Felicity reports below that there's a lift next to the staircase entry to the building.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

More mushrooming

May 19, 2012

Mike, Cindy and I were inspired by our mushrooming lessons at Bress and decided to spend the following Saturday morning doing some foraging of our own. We headed off to Macedon to try our luck - Mike and Cindy with their eyes on the ground and me scanning for birds (like the delightful Flame Robin above).

The pine forest in Macedon is loaded up with fungi - we wandered about for forty minutes turning up lots of beautiful, but completely inedible mushrooms.

It was starting to get a bit depressing - mushrooms mushrooms everywhere, but nothing much to eat. Disheartened, we headed back to the car to move on to another part of the forest. When out of the corner of my eye I spotted something orange-looking amongst the pine needles.

Score! Our first pine-mushroom. We quickly stumbled on a few more in the same area and things were looking up.

We even found some odd looking jelly spheres - maybe frog's eggs?

We did a bit more wandering around other parts of the Macedon pine forest, finding a few more pine mushrooms.

And some disgusting looking, but apparently edible slippery jacks.

Before too long we had as many mushrooms as the three of us were conceivably going to eat: four big pines and a couple of slippery jacks. With our foraging finished we went in search of the Macedon bakery, which supposedly was going to provide us with the best baked goods of our lives - sadly they seem to have gone out of business, leaving us with some adequate goodies from Sitka Foodstore and Cafe.

By the time dinner rolled around, both Mike and Cindy were having second thoughts about our mushies. I was confident enough in our ID-skills to go for it though, and cooked up some mushrooms on toast to have alongside our main meal of haloumi and grape salad.

And you know what? They were delicious! At least the pine mushrooms were - even with their slimy tops peeled off, the texture of the slippery jacks didn't do a lot for me. But the orange pine mushrooms (or saffron milk caps as I believe they're also known) were delicious - cooked with a bit of butter and garlic plus some salt and pepper and they're an outstanding meal. Sadly our pictures were a bit crappy - even the picture above is the more bruised of our pine mushroom batches.

Going out foraging for your own mushrooms is super fun - it's easy, delicious and makes you feel like you're the new bush tucker man. Just make sure you know what you're doing - don't just trust our photos and survival story - find someone who knows what they're doing and learn what to pick up and what to leave the hell alone.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Cornish Arms

May 17, 2012
The vegan telegraph was abuzz this week with the news that the chef from the sadly departed East Brunswick Club had started a similar vegan-friendly menu going at The Cornish Arms on Sydney Road. We were quickly on the case and, with Danni, Keira and assorted others in tow, were there on Thursday night to check it out.

It's a nice enough pub - there's an enormous bar, loads of tables and a pleasant-looking, if spartan, courtyard. The crowd was a mix of hungry vegans, Brunswick hipsters and locals who may well have been hanging out at The Cornish Arms since before the cool kids moved north from Fitzroy. The menu is very reminiscent of the EBC - there's a parma, some burgers, nachos... in general lots of mock-meat and junky pub food (there are rumours of pizzas, but we didn't spot any vegan-friendly ones on the blackboard just yet). Our kind of thing.

Cindy tried out their fish 'n' chips ($20), which had a very familiar look about them. The 'fish' chunks are battered tofu, with the nori adding a bit of a fishy flavour and the vegan tartare providing the real highlight. The chips were okay as well. Not great, not terrible - just old-fashioned fried goodness.

I had the burrito ($18, which was at least a bit different from the EBC's mexi-night version).

This came stuffed with rice, black bean chilli, mock chicken, mock bacon and vegan cheese, with a side of scattered corn chips, a slightly odd jalapeno/guacamole/sour cream sauce bowl and some salad. It was pretty satisfying - these are good-sized burritos - but at $18 it doesn't really measure up to the excellence of the $10 tofu burrito at Trippytaco (but then what does?).

We decided to go the whole hog and try out the vegan dessert - just like the EBC their main offering is vegan cheesecake. On our visit it was peanut butter and chocolate flavoured ($6). And, just like the EBC, it took about an hour to turn up.

And, like the savoury food that had gone before it, it was... fine. A vegan cheesecake is a pretty reliable dessert option and these flavours hit the spot nicely. It might have just been my frustration at the wait (they'd forgotten our order!) but I just wasn't super impressed by it. Good, but not great.

Don't get me wrong, the CA is a nice pub - they've got good beers on tap, plenty of space and a nice, relaxed vibe. But the food is expensive (vegan mains are $16-$20) and pubs like The Gasometer and The Fox have really kicked the vegan-friendly pub food up a notch since the heyday of the EBC. Still, if you're after something junky and animal-product-free and want somewhere you won't need to book or worry too much about how stylish your facial hair is looking, then it's well worth checking out the Cornish Arms. Let us know what you think.

You can read about some of our many visits to the East Brunswick Club here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Nobody seems to have blogged the new menu at the Cornish Arms yet, but Beer Bar Band and juganaut both liked the old menu well enough.

The Cornish Arms
163A Sydney Road, Brunswick
9380 8383 
vegan mains $16-$20

Accessibility: There's a flat entryway and a pretty spacious interior. Lighting is low without being ludicrously dim. Ordering and payment happens at the bar. The toilets are on the same level and are wheelchair accessible.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Soulmama III

May 13, 2012

Edit 07/06/2012: We heard last week that Soulmama is closed again!
Soulmama disappeared from the St Kilda Baths sometime last year and mysteriously reappeared later on Fitzroy St. While the ornamental dragon has moved with them, I gather that the owners have changed. The menu has shifted from mostly buffet to all a la carte and remains all vegetarian. Vegan options are well marked but gluten-free pointers are less consistent.

We visited with the Moody Noodles, and started out by sharing a bowl of fries ($9.50) and the Japanese gyoza ($11).
Both of these were solid renditions and turned up promptly.

Toby and Michael shared on, divvying up hot smoked tofu ($22) marinated in soy, plum and roselle then served with bok choy, peanut sauce, cucumber, red onion, coconut vinegar and jaggary. This was an odd combination of flavours presented oddly on the plate and it didn't win over either of them.

They enjoyed the soul burger ($20.50) more - the patty was well composed with black beans, pumpkin and chipotle, then complemented with caramelised onions and guacamole, and served with more fries.

I ordered again from the Starters section, hoping that the $16.50 price tag hinted at a decent portion. This really paid off - the soy-valaki boasts some excellent mock meat, which is stuffed into a wrap with more caramelised onions and salad. It's a lovely light meal if you're fond of faux meat.

K's fajitas ($24) attracted the most attention of all - their gluten status was questionable and seemed to come up clear in the end (K's bloat-o-meter scored low overnight), and they just looked damn tasty. There's more of those tender soy strips up front, as well as guacamole, fresh salsa, some green leaves and a couple of tortillas.

We found room for dessert - the vanilla panna cotta ($12) is coconut-based and vegan-friendly, topped with tart raspberries and coconut. Michael's serve seemed to disappear in seconds.

I plodded more slowly through the triple chocolate cake ($14.50), another vegan victory. The chocolates three are a dry cake base, impressive mousse mound and syrupy drizzle. If you're not up for the dessert and sorbet tasting plate ($29), this is a completely shareable half-price alternative.

Our waiter was friendly and attentive though she struggled a little to safely serve our resident coeliac. I've never quite worked out what Soulmama is pitching at; the fit-out is smart casual with new-agey Asia-inspired accents yet it serves fries, pizza and dumplings, and charges quite a lot for the package. Our dishes were more successes than failures but felt overpriced. Maybe we're just not the target demographic - we seemed surrounded by families happy to pony up and share a vegetarian meal in this setting.

We reviewed the previous incarnation of Soulmama here and here. The only blog post I can find about the Fitzroy St restaurant appears on Megan & Melbourne.

79-81 Fitzroy St, St Kilda
9534 5472
starters $9.50-19.50, mains $16.50-26.00, desserts $3.50-29.00

Accessibility: Soulmama may have a small step on entry, and has moderately spaced tables inside. We received full table service and didn't visit the toilets.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Foraging Frolic - Mushrooms

Fringe Food Festival
May 12, 2012
Melbourne's Fringe Food Festival is now running events all year round and I keep an eye out for the veg-friendly ones (which included the vegan Embrasse dinner we attended last year). When I noticed that an upcoming mushroom foraging event included a vegetarian catering option I was quick to forward it on to fungus fan Mike - he gave the nod and I nabbed he, your regular bloggin' Michael and I tickets to join in.

The event began and ended at the idyllic Bress Winery, where co-owner Adam gave us a tour of the wine- and cider-making facilities and winery dog Ollie showed us the best sticks.

Adam assisted Matt of Mushrooms Anonymous in showing us round a couple of their local foraging spots, giving us the basics on edible and inedible mushrooms, and as well as some fungus foraging etiquette. We picked plenty for lunch, and found a good few poisonous species to admire and leave alone.

Arriving back at Bress, I was pretty excited to see and smell potatoes baked in the outdoor wood-fired oven! Yep, they were for us and they were delicious.

Before the spuds came to the table we feasted on our haul, sopping up the juices with fluffy warm bread.

Though the grey ghosts didn't look quite as appetising as the pine mushrooms, they were excellent - I suspect the secret ingredient was butter.

The other highlight of the meal was these croquettes - their crisp crumbing gave way to a molten mushroom filling. Ironically, though, us vegetarians were fed slightly fewer mushrooms than the other guests. While they dined on beef cheeks and more mushies, we were treated to some tender glazed roast veges and a salad featuring locally grown chilli peppers. Though I'm an incorrigible sweet tooth, I appreciated the understated dessert that we finished up with - a poached pear half in thick syrup with a dollop of cream.

It was all catered by Jo from The Commoner, and has piqued my interest in the restaurant's veg-adaptable menu.

We love a road trip with Mike, had a lot of fun at this event, and are pretty keen to try some more mushroom hunting ourselves. Two more foraging frolics are scheduled, for May 26 and June 2. If you're lucky you may still be able to purchase tickets!

This Foraging Frolic has also been blogged on Pigging out around the world.