Photo: Domino Postiglione
I've discovered the cure for the common cold. It's a cute, cheap, dotty little restaurant in Redfern with portraits of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the wall and a general air of mayhem and self-belief emanating from the pocket kitchen. I went in coughing, spluttering and sneezing, and came out … cured.
Nourishing Quarter is quite possibly the most original restaurant in town, if ''original'' is defined as doing your own thing because you don't know how to do anything else. It's shambolic, authentic (to itself) and quite adorable. It's also Vietnamese with a bit of Latin American for good luck, packaged with nostalgia, the cheekiness of a pop-up and the devotion of an evangelising nutritionist.
The first thing you have to know is it's BYO but is conveniently located next to the Norfolk Hotel. The second thing is it's vegetarian, as in really vegetarian - plant-based, nutritional, post-Buddhist, wholefood vegetarian. So the broth for the pho ($13), generously garnished with marinated tofu strips and a bucket load of herbs, is an aromatic tea infusion flavoured with star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel seeds, ginger, whole coriander and peppercorns.
Full marks, too, for having that all-important, sweet, smoky element of charred onions, the thing that makes pho taste like pho even more than the essence of chicken or beef. Without the onions, ''there is no there, there'', as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, when she returned after 30 years to discover her family home had gone, along with her old school.
There's plenty of ''there'' in the Three Sisters ($13.50), a selection of three fresh rice-paper rolls stuffed with different combinations of quinoa, chia seeds, julienned vegetables, textured vegetable protein, sweet kumara noodles, mint sprouts and lettuce, served with nuoc cham, peanut and bean dipping sauces. They're slightly warm, fresh and substantial; the dipping sauces are lively, too. In fact, I'm not sure I don't prefer them to most of the bland, cold, limp things that pass as summer rolls around town.
The menu makes a good read, with its Pho-Evermore Nourished Soup, Humble Pies, and Ancient Pearls Within Our Grasps (lettuce cups to be eaten in the hands). So-called Pretty Dumplings ($12.50 for four) are filled with a mix of quinoa, veggies, coriander and watercress and are indeed pretty; floppy, silky and punched up with a light but feisty dipping sauce.
Eating here is beguiling. Plates are great-auntie's china that mix and mismatch with the floral table coverings. Faded pictures of royalty adorn the exposed-brick walls; shelves are laden higgledy-piggledy with books, magazines, teacups, teapots and royal commemorative tea caddies. There's a piano accordion on the floor, next to an antiquated film projector.
The nostalgic decor has been deliberately designed - or un-designed - to be warm, inviting and reminiscent of early, pre-iPad Redfern. Or so say the owners, a suitably motley crew of French, English and Vietnamese; one of whom, Ms Tien Forward, heads up four cooks in the pot-sized kitchen.
Service is eccentric. At dinner, there's a good-natured if slightly distracted waitress. At lunch, there's not even that luxury, so the kitchen staff bring dishes to the table and (occasionally) clear them as well.
A double-dish called Passage to India ($16.50) sees a big, warming bowl of lush, tan vegetable curry chockers with tofu, pumpkin, chickpeas, peas and amaranth, with a platter of moulded mounds of ancient amaranth and quinoa and a zingy green salad.
Bun Rieu ($13) is a successful play on the traditional crab and noodle soup. The part of the crab is played by a soft cloud of tofu cream and tofu milk acidulated with vinegar; and the broth is suitably tangy and tomatoey, carrying rafts of crisp tofu strips and slippery quinoa and rice noodles.
A range of dairy- and wheat-free ''cheesecakes'' ($5.50) is made for the restaurant. I can't get excited. The strawberry version is a smooth, cold, glossy, cinnamon-flavoured wedge of mousse-like cake without any sign of strawberry. But then, there's no real sign of cheese. Or cake, for that matter.
So it's not just about traditional dishes with meat taken out but more of a complete, holistic approach to rebuilding tradition from another angle entirely. In most cases, the end result on the plate is neither bogus nor imitative, but enjoyable in its own right, while gently pressing the buttons of comfort and familiarity. I leave amused, delighted and, yes, nourished; cured of a cold, and of a prejudice or two.
Address 315 Cleveland Street, Redfern. Phone 8399 0888
Open Lunch, Thu-Sun; dinner, Tue-Sat
Licensed No. BYO corkage $3pp
Cost About $50 for two
- 02 8399 0888
- Cuisine - Vegetarian/Vegan, Vietnamese, South American
- Prices - about $50 for two, about $50 for two
- Opening Hours - Thurs-Sun, lunch; Tues-Sat, dinner
- Author - Terry Durack