Greek restaurants and vegetarians don't generally mix: all that lamb, all that pork, all that seafood. But at Brunswick's Hellenic Republic, vegetarians don't have to make do with loads of saganaki and Greek salad. Former head chef, now venue manager, Travis McAuley, got creative to flesh out the restaurant's no-meat options. The Kipriaki salata dimitriakon (or Cypriot salad of grains, nuts, pulses and yoghurt) is the type of dish that convinces folk they could happily live off salad - just salad - for the rest of their lives. Chewy, delicious grains of freekeh and plump puy lentils are tossed with pinenuts, seeds, almonds and currants with loads of coriander and parsley for good measure. It's topped off with dollops of yoghurt, laced with cumin and honey, and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds that lend the dish an extra, tart burst of flavour, not that it needs it. McAuley says the dish was inspired by George Calombaris' mother, Mary, who makes a much simpler Cypriot grain salad. "We kind of bastardised it," says McAuley.
The Cypriot grain salad is a regular on a revolving list of salads, about five of which appear on the menu at any one time. Another is the patzari: wedges of beetroot sprinkled with toasted almonds and cress and, again, that delicious honey-yoghurt. Maybe some goat's curd. It tastes as good as it looks. Papousaki (baked eggplant stuffed with onion, fetta and tomato) is also a popular no-meat option, as well as spanakopita and dolmades. And here's the good bit; nearly all of Hellenic Republic's dishes are available take-away, for lunch or dinner.
* Travis McAuley has kindly given us Hellenic Republic's recipe for Cypriot grain salad with pulses and yoghurt.
Hellenic Republic, 434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9381 1222. Salads $9-$13.50.
DAINTY SICHUAN (HOLD THE MINCE)
When Sichuan expert Fuchsia Dunlop was in town recently for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival she hosted a dinner at Dainty Sichuan's city venue. The British chef, schooled in Sichuan kitchens, drew up a menu that reflected home-style Sichuan cooking: less oil, less heat, less meat. One happy surprise was a mapo tofu, generally served in Sichuan restaurants here with a good whack of pork mince. The vegetarian version was still delicious with that lovely chilli-Sichuan pepper hit. Both Dainty restaurants (South Yarra and CBD) will cook up a vegetarian mapo tofu if you ask for it.
Local fans of Sichuan cuisine may also be surprised to discover that "fish-flavoured eggplant" - that delicious, sticky, sweet pile of comfort served at most Sichuan joints around town, is animal-free. There's no fish sauce lurking in there to spoil the party for vegetarians. As Dainty Sichuan owner Ye Shao explains, the "fish-flavoured sauce" used in many Dainty dishes is actually a mix of garlic, pickled chilli, sugar and black vinegar. Fish-flavoured eggplant is served crispy-fried at Dainty's South Yarra venue, and non-battered in the city.
Dainty Sichuan, 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 9078 1686 and Level 2, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9650 2188.
Meat abstainers are no doubt familiar with Carlton institution Shakahari; it gave vegetarianism some much-needed culinary cred when it launched its Hindu-based menu on this town in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, little sister Shakahari Too has had a fairly soft landing since opening its doors on the other side of the river last August. The menu is a tad cheaper (entrees $8-14.50; mains $17.50-$19.50), and Shakahari head chef and owner Beh Kim Un has turned to Buddhist and south-east Asian cuisine to inspire his South Melbourne venture, but far from strictly. There's no Indian red curry at Shakahari Too, but there is a Shaolin claypot: Spanish rice, red kidney beans and Victorian chestnuts in a pickled mustard green and pumpkin seaweed broth. Salads are popular here too: the "scent of green papaya" is an obvious choice with its zesty combo of raw, shredded papaya and carrot, tempeh strips, and crunchy green beans in a fresh chilli and tamarind dressing. But the "lentil dialogue" could be the winner. The lentils themselves may be slightly overcooked for my taste, but there are walnuts for crunch and the dressing of wasabi and chilli is invigorating. Somehow the flavours remain separate and it works. Faux meat does not get a look-in, though many dishes including the green laksa come topped with chewy strips of seitan along with fried triangles of tofu.
Shakahari Too, 225 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, 9682 2207.
THE VEGIE SET
When Andrew McConnell, Josh Murphy and Anthony Hammond settled on a fixed-menu model for Moon Under Water, their Fitzroy restaurant at the Builders Arms, it made sense, explains head chef Murphy, to offer a vegetarian menu alongside the omnivore one. Logical to him maybe, but as many vegetarians will attest, not to many other establishments around town. There's no risotto thrown into the mix either, or, as Murphy puts it, "meat meals with a hole where the meat should be." Instead, Moon Under Water's constantly changing menu (at $75 for four courses) offers up thoughtfully composed and complementary dishes that don't overburden the diner with too much dairy, carbohydrate or vegetable matter to gnaw through. A starter of zucchini flowers (still attached to baby vegetables) might come on a smudge of lemon sauce (non-dairy) with a sprinkling of smoked chilli, to be followed by a delightfully just-wobbly parmesan tart served with rocket, barely roasted almond slices and grilled baby leek. As Murphy points out, non-vegetarians can always pick and choose from both menus.
Moon Under Water, Builders Arms Hotel, 211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9417 7700.
CHEAP CITY LUNCH
We're possibly venturing into dangerous territory here. Port Phillip Arcade, a few skips down Flinders Street from Young & Jackson, is not exactly a food court. It's - well - an arcade. But you get the picture. This is where we now find Jolly J's, one of the CBD's true stayers. Port Phillip Arcade is the third home for chef Millon De Kauwe and his Sri Lankan curries. His family first set up Jolly J's in Dandenong in 1981. He then shifted to Collins Street. When he moved to the arcade 10 years ago Jolly J's inherited a terrifying sub-heading: "International Cuisine". But look past the calamari rings and the chicken parmigianas and there is Mr De Kauwe, as smiley as ever, and still firmly in charge of all the delicious Sri Lankan curries coming out of the kitchen. The princely sum of $8.50 buys you three vegetarian curries with rice and all the usual condiments - a coconut sambol and a yoghurt and cucumber dressing to cool things down. A pumpkin curry is rich with spice: mustard, fennel, cumin - the odd whole stick of cinnamon. The dhal-like lentil curry is milder, with more coconut milk. You might get an eggplant curry, or a cabbage mellum. There's the odd non-traditional dish such as stir-fried mushrooms. But they're all good, particularly at this price. And for any long-term fans who may be wondering about that name ... De Kauwe's three children all have names beginning with J. Presumably, they're all rather jolly.
Jolly J's, Shop 8-9 Port Phillip Arcade, 228-236 Flinders Street, Melbourne, 9650 9989.