It's a crime I've been guilty of committing to every one of my vegetarian friends at least twice. I've invited them to a birthday, or a group dinner, or even just a hot date at a restaurant with a menu that consists of 95 per cent dishes featuring meat, and 5 per cent of dishes that have just had the meat taken out of them with nothing exciting put in its place. "Oh she'll just have the cheeseburger without the meat" I would announce to the waiter, who cared about my friend even less than I did. "Hold the cheese too! Two slices of saucy bread with some limp lettuce sounds like an adequate meal to me!"
Maybe it wasn't quite that bad. But I've definitely been halfway through one of the best meals of my life and looked over at my vegetarian friend as he grumpily poked at his pale, stodgy risotto with a fork. When I ran a burger joint and served a small menu of fries covered in various salsas and the very unimaginatively named 'double bean nachos', vegetarians would often thank us for having such an extensive vego menu. I should've realised then how dire the situation was.
The thing is, I don't need to eat meat at every meal. And after a WHO report last week that linked red and processed meats to cancer, it may be that no one should.
Lee Tran Lam is a food writer, radio host and podcaster. She writes for the Good Food Guide, and for her own website, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry (which is also the name of her podcast), and is referred to in the food industry as "everyone's favourite vegetarian". Lee Tran loves food as much as I do, she's just been a vegetarian for the past 18 years, and for her, eating out in Sydney has gotten way better than it was eight years ago, when even at a hatted restaurant you'd get a "main which was really everyone else's side dishes swiped onto your plate".
So what are Lee Tran's tips for vegetarians wanting to make the most out of Sydney dining? "Always ask if there are vegetarian options when you book and ask again when you're at the restaurant – it's surprising how many places have a special vegetarian menu that's not advertised on their website or not handed out with the menus."
"Sometimes if you just ask nicely what the vegetarian options are, the waiter sometimes will say, 'we can do this dish with something instead of meat', or 'we can see what the chef will do'," says Lee Tran, "but this of course depends on how accommodating they are [and how busy they are, too]".
Chefs don't hate vegetarians
A common myth – and one that has probably lead to a lot of vegetarians discouraging themselves from eating out – is that Sydney chefs (and chefs in general) don't like to cook for vegetarians.
This isn't true at all, says chef Mike Eggert of Sydney collective Pinbone. "There are more vegetarians and vegans in Sydney than ever before," he says. "So a chef can bitch and moan and carry on like a pork chop but that'll mean you'll lose business or disappoint diners with lazy or underwhelming food. More importantly you miss the chance to show true hospitality and the chance to flex a little as a chef with creativity and originality. Sometimes the best dishes come on the run."
For those wanting to try vegetarian when they venture to new restaurants in Sydney: "The courtesy of letting the restaurant know in advance [ideally at least the night before] obviously allows chefs to prepare and better cater to your restrictions." As for chefs wanting to start expanding the vegetarian section of their menu? "My tip for chefs is to start exploring the awesome vegetable dishes from Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern cuisine."
Hold the cheese
Last month Newtown's Gigi's Pizzeria announced their menu was going to become completely vegan, and the internet exploded with an anger usually reserved for rednecks who just found out their favourite TV character was gay.
"Who the hell wants pizza with no cheese!" they screamed as they boycotted a restaurant in a suburb they'd never go to anyway.
It was a decision of Gigi's owner Marco Matino, who became vegan at the start of 2015.
"The change came about from being aware of how much produce we go through plus all the information I've collected about animal agriculture on many different levels," he said.
There was a line out the door every night of the week that Gigi's new vegan menu came into place, and I took a friend there to try the new pizzas, knowing well that the marinara tradizionale, with tomatoes, garlic and oregano, and the Patate, with thin sliced potato, rosemary and black truffle pate, would be excellent, as they are both classic pizzas invented long before the need to cover everything with cheese.
But what of the more adventurous pies, featuring experimental substitutes for cheese, like cauliflower puree and olive tapenade?
Much to my surprise, the calzone con cavolo, filled with said cauliflower puree, plus red capsicum, olives and artichokes and topped with parsley salsa, was by far the best slice on the table, devoid of any salumi or buffalo mozzarella, but as good as any of the pizza I ate when I ate nothing but it for a fortnight earlier in the year.
Otto Ristorante has also just launched a vegan menu, matched with vegan wine "because we get so much demand for it."
Gigi Pizzeria, 379 King Street, Newtown, 02 9557 2224
Otto, 8/6 Cowper Wharf Roadway, Woolloomooloo, 02 9368 7488
My father-in-law cooks three steaks for every person whenever we go round for a barbecue and knows every butcher in a 20-kilometre radius by their first name, but the only restaurant he likes to eat out at is the completely vegetarian Taj Indian Sweets & Restaurant in Harris Park. Specialising in the street snacks of South India, my father-in-law will happily chow down on dainty pani puri (filled with chick peas and tamarind water) and dosas the width of his arms (filled with onions and potatoes), alongside an entire table of equally satisfied meat-eaters, and there's at least 80 per cent chance he won't get a Quarter Pounder on the way home. Around the corner from Taj is Chatkazz, a massive restaurant that feels almost like an Applebees except with a truly whacky menu featuring similar South Indian snacks next to strange appropriations of Western standards like pizza and club sandwiches, none of which contain meat. It might be the most fun vegetarian eating experience in Sydney.
Taj Indian Sweets & Restaurant, 91 Wigram Street, Harris Park, 02 9633 2118
Chatkazz, 4/14-20 Station Street East, Harris Park, 02 8677 0033
The final test
After weeks of vegetarian investigation, it all came down to one final challenge. Even as someone who has started to cook meat less and less at home, when I'm paying more than $100 for a set menu, there's a value associated with having top quality meat – meat I rarely have access to buy or cook myself – in the courses. Could I order the vegetarian menu at one of Sydney's high end restaurants and leave as satisfied as I would after eating the regular menu? I had my doubts.
Vegetarians I spoke to in my quest to find Sydney's best all-plant menu, suggested that Bentley offered a vegetarian tasting menu that rivalled its regular, multiple award-winning tasting menu. I booked a table, making sure I sat opposite a table of carnivores enjoying the regular menu, and ordered the vegetarian alternative.
Bentley's head chef Brent Savage has always believed that everybody who comes to the restaurant should have an equal offering. "Vegetables need to be treated with the same respect as, if not more than, protein. The creative process needs to be just as thoughtful for vegetarians as it is for omnivores."
One of the dishes on his vegetarian menu – a mix of raw and cooked pumpkin with black bean, persimmon and yolk – appears on the regular menu too, and delivered a richness not usually associated with vego dishes.
Even more indulgent was a sweet and creamy dish of caramelised macadamias and Japanese artichokes, good enough to stop me envying my neighbouring table's pork cheek with jamon in any way. In fact, the trap that a lot of set menus fall into where dishes get richer and richer, to the point where an overly sweet dessert is almost unfathomable, wasn't present at all.
I left satisfied, content. Not quite considering becoming a full-time vegetarian, but open to the thought of accommodating those who are. Although, if I do change my diet, promise you won't take me out for risotto.
Bentley Restaurant + Bar, Ground Floor, Radisson Blu Hotel, 27 O'Connell Street, Sydney
Top five: Vegetarian fine dining
Bentley Restaurant + Bar
Brent's wife Fleur is a vegetarian and he obviously has seen first-hand how uninspired some vegetarian "options" can be, so his vegetarian dishes are inventive, surprising and thrilling. I still think about the trio of gazpacho I had on my first visit.
Ground Floor, Radisson Blu Hotel, 27 O'Connell Street, Sydney, 02 8214 0505
They're really good with dietary requirements and exceptional at making sure a dish is vegetarian (e.g. putting XO sauce on the side) if you're sharing a dish with friends. There's never a shortage of flavours on the menu, such as the tempura-smoked corn with black salt or the crisp saltbush that's like eating a deep-fried bouquet that you strip and eat with chilli, mayo and lemon.
80 Campbell Street, Surry Hills, 02 9280 1980
You know (head chef) Ben Sears used to be a vegetarian? The dishes here are just full-powered with flavour – there are no afterthought dishes. Whether you're having zucchini bulgogi or potato pancake with shiso or fried cauliflower on seed bread, they're great.
Moon Park, 34 Redfern Street, Redfern, 02 9690 0111
Every dish is a knockout. Pasi goes out of his way to make his vegetarian options look point for point like the meat courses. What's on offer is so unpredictable and being caught off-guard is part of the thrill – like trying the eggplant, hazelnut butter, radicchio and freeze-dried raspberry dish.
Level 1, 95 Riley Street, Darlinghurst, 02 9368 7000
LuMi Bar & Dining
Some of the signature dishes here are vegetarian; like the Italian-inspired chawanmushi with parmesan and enoki that they had when they first opened, and the killer snacks, like those salt and vinegar crisps, which are the most next-level version of what you had for primary school recess. LuMi did a series of veg experiments earlier this year, running 'Vegnesday' menus for a month or so.
56 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont, 02 9571 1999
Best veg dishes for under $20
Cauliflower at Ester
A dish so beautifully wood-fire oven-blasted and well-teamed with lemon, almond and mint that Terry Durack singled it out when announcing Ester's Best New Restaurant win at the Good Food Guide awards.
'Shroom/Veg Burger at Mary's
Mary's co-owner Jake Smyth was a vegetarian for four years; his meat-free option is a rock 'n' roll version of a confit mushroom burger with garlic and herb oil and it's messy and delicious.
Almond cream at Dead Ringer
Move over, hummus. The almond cream dish here is a next-level dip, garnished with sherry-marinated dehydrated grapes and oregano – and made to be shovelled with charred-as-hell, oil-dripped bread.
Canh chua at Duy Linh
This vegetarian take on the classic Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup is so eerily flavour-authentic that you wonder if it's a magic trick.
Linguine, black garlic, burnt chilli at ACME
Mee goreng in pyrotechnic, Italian disguise – twirl your pasta through the singed chilli, black garlic and bread crumbs for a full-powered pay-off of heat, umami and crunch.
with Lee Tran Lam