Low-carbon dining replaces low-carb as the trend to watch in Melbourne

Chef Matt Wilkinson and farm manager Julie Bennett in the kitchen garden at Montalto in Red Hill.
Chef Matt Wilkinson and farm manager Julie Bennett in the kitchen garden at Montalto in Red Hill.  Photo: Wayne Taylor

Chef Matt Wilkinson is at the zenith of his love affair with vegetables. He estimates there are only 200 grams of seafood and meat on his veg-forward menu at Mornington Peninsula winery Montalto, where he's culinary director. It's not about cutting out meat, though. It's just that vegetables are more exciting.

"I guarantee that most chefs can do more with a potato than with a sirloin," says the English-born chef.

With access to more than a hectare of orchards and vegetable gardens on Montalto's Red Hill South estate, it's no wonder Wilkinson is keen to give this produce a starring role on his menu. 

Hope St Radio is serving spring vegetable crudites with toum on its 10-dish menu that's mostly free of red meat.
Hope St Radio is serving spring vegetable crudites with toum on its 10-dish menu that's mostly free of red meat. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

But he's not the only person veering to veg. The plant kingdom is gaining strength in many of Victoria's spunkiest new restaurants, among them Bar Thyme, Hope Street Radio, Copycat and Bar Midland and, soon, Patsy's in the CBD.

Don't call them vegetarian restaurants, or brace yourself for a sermon though.

"We're just cooking stuff we want to eat and are excited about," says Ellie Bouhadana of Hope Street Radio in Collingwood, which offers only two red meat items on its 10-dish menu. "A lot of the time that's fresh vegetables." 

Chef Ellie Bouhadana serves more vegetables at Hope St Radio because that's what excites her.
Chef Ellie Bouhadana serves more vegetables at Hope St Radio because that's what excites her. Photo: Joe Armao

Chef Tommy Hope gets a thrill out of seeing what's in season and putting it to use on weekly-changing menus at Footscray's Bar Thyme, which opened in February.

"I wanted to avoid having vegetables as the sidecar," says Hope, who brings experience from fine-diner Attica. "I think it's more challenging and interesting to find a vegetable that's in season and find a way to make it a complete dish."

Others chefs, such as Paolo Arlotta of Fitzroy's Italian hangout Riso, are vegetarian and passionate about sustainability, saying mass-produced meat contributes significantly to carbon emissions.

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Frustrated by the meat-free options he saw at mid-tier restaurants, he opened his own place run to his own principles.

It's not just an inner-city thing. Castlemaine newcomer Bar Midland will not serve farmed meat. That means sometimes there's wild rabbit, other times venison, but never the array of chicken, beef, duck or lamb that diners are accustomed to.

These earth-conscious venues join degustation-only restaurants such as Maha and Lume that have long created tasting menus specifically for vegan guests.

Radishes with sunflower seed and miso cream is one of Bar Thyme's most popular dishes.
Radishes with sunflower seed and miso cream is one of Bar Thyme's most popular dishes. Photo: Supplied

Vue de Monde's chef Hugh Allen says he and his team put just as much work into these dishes, even plating them so they look identical to what other diners receive. Then the waitstaff do their bit, talking through provenance, kitchen techniques and other details.

"It's just treating a vegetable with as much respect as if you're showing off a piece of wagyu," says Allen.

Seeing less meat on restaurants' main menus is something new, though. 

At Vue de Monde, lion's mane mushroom is crumbed and fried, then served in a similar way to a chicken nugget.
At Vue de Monde, lion's mane mushroom is crumbed and fried, then served in a similar way to a chicken nugget. Photo: Supplied

These new restaurants are winning over diners with high-wattage flavour.. 

Wilkinson serves his estate-grown veg to 3000 diners at weekends in summer. At Riso, Arlotta says he gets a 50-50 mix of meat-eaters and plant fans.

"If you go to restaurants that have more simple vegetable-forward menus, you might start cooking that way at home," says Bouhadana. "A lot of people I talk to are inspired by what they eat out."

Vue de Monde executive chef Hugh Allen believes that successful vegan and vegetarian dishes are given just as much care ...
Vue de Monde executive chef Hugh Allen believes that successful vegan and vegetarian dishes are given just as much care in cooking, plating and service as other dishes. Photo: Elke Meitzel

A recent best-seller at Hope Street Radio in Collingwood involved grilled zucchini, fresh basil and mint, a ball of milky burrata cheese and good quality olive oil. 

Bar Thyme's chef says diners love radishes with a sunflower seed and miso dip, topped with a chunky chilli oil. It's entirely vegan.

"A lot of people don't know what to do with vegies or how to extract the maximum flavour out of them," says Arlotta.

Burrata with artichokes and nettle oil at Hope Street Radio earlier this year.
Burrata with artichokes and nettle oil at Hope Street Radio earlier this year. Photo: Natalie Jurren

Not for much longer, as eating vegetables enters a growth phase.

Where to try it

Low-carbon, big flavour: Bar Midland

Ethical produce stars at this tiny diner inside a magical hotel, transformed by drinks wizard Loudon Cooper and chef Alexander Marano.

1-2 Templeton Street, Castlemaine, 0423 369 075, barmidland.com

Vegetable whisperer: Bar Thyme

A community-loving wine bar with a light footprint and heavy impact. Red meat is minimal; in its place is approachable bar food with progressive ethics.

227 Barkly Street, West Footscray, 03 9687 8644, no website

Easy-breezy ethical: Hope Street Radio

Share-friendly Mediterranean feasts, from vegetable crudites with toum to hand-made pastas in satisfying sauces.

35 Johnston St, Collingwood, no phone, hopestradio.community  

A vegan pioneer: Maha

The entry-level three-course soufra banquet is spiced yet balanced and caters to all tastes, such as pescatarian, gluten-free, or vegan.

21 Bond Street, Melbourne, 03 9629 5900, maharestaurant.com.au

Patch to plate: Montalto

Meticulously manicured kitchen gardens interwoven with vines and art. Matt Wilkinson, of Pope Joan fame, lends his green-thumbed influence to the menu.

33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South, 03 5989 8412, montalto.com.au

Meatless wizardry: Riso Diner

Vue de Monde and Tipo 00 alumnus Paolo Arlotta's commitment to sustainability is impressive, but the meatless wizardry is even more so.

60 Rose Street, Fitzroy, 0450 700 394, risodiner.com

Top-drawer tasting menus: Vue De Monde

This is serious special occasion dining, with a focus on Australian ingredients expertly deployed. And diners of all stripes are looked after equally. 

Level 55, Rialto Towers, 525 Collins Street, Melbourne. 03 9691 3888, vuedemonde.com.au

The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine, with 350 reviews of Victoria's best restaurants, bars and cafes for summer, is on sale in newsagents and supermarkets from Tuesday December 7, $9.95