Catching up with pals at the local noodle shop or bistro once a week is a pretty healthy pastime: it's social, it supports the local food industry and it's better than meeting at a bar - at least you're taking in solids. But nutritionally, eating out can be not so healthy. If you're in the midst of a health-conscious stint, you may be searching the menu for the least-unhealthy option (''at least there's tomato and lettuce in a burger…'').
But there are places where the whole menu is designed around a healthy-eating philosophy. Health-conscious restaurants generally limit things that are high in trans fats (which usually means red meat, dairy and margarines). And they replace everyday processed and refined ingredients (such as sugar, white anything - rice, flour and pasta) with whole, natural ingredients: honey to sweeten, wholegrain pasta, soy milk and brown rice. That rice might also be produced biodynamically, and the vegies will likely be organic and may be served raw to avoid the loss of any nutrients during cooking.
Catch up on your vegie intake and be your own best pal by eating at one of these health-conscious cafes.
Mina-no-ie's lunch menu is a ''chef's selection'' of sorts; it's a plate of two kinds of seasonal salad (maybe cos, nashi and fennel, and broccolini and shimeji), a serve of grains (beans, quinoa and brown rice), plus your choice of veg (eggplant and chickpea stew) and/or meat or fish (pan-seared tuna with pickled onion). The combination of dishes balance a range of ingredients for a nutritious, gorgeous-looking and tasty meal with a pared-back Japanese aesthetic.
33 Peel Street, Collingwood, 9417 7749; open Tues-Fri, 8am-4pm; Sat, 9am-4pm; minanoie.com
The sweeping glass-fronted bar at Munsterhaus holds a vegetarian smorgasbord. Point the finger at as many as you can muster onto your plate. Some of the 20-odd dishes might include a quinoa and three-capsicum salad, dhal or tofu and shiitake broth, and sweet potato glass noodles. The flavours are full and expertly extracted by Matt Andrews, who worked for 15 years at Tofu Shop International before opening Munsterhaus in 2010.
371 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, 9489 4420; open Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat, 9am-2pm; Fri-Sat, 9am-8.30pm
Monk Bodhi Dharma
Stealthily healthy, this Balaclava back-alley bunker could be mistaken for just another speciality coffee roastery/cafe. But its brunchy menu is all vegetarian, mostly organic and offers raw options too. Dinner Fridays is all vegan, sugar and gluten-free. Northsiders, look out for Monk Bodhi's second roastery/cafe, Admiral Cheng Ho (corner Nicholson & Johnston streets), opening in Abbotsford mid-October.
Rear, 202 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, 9534 7250; open Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-5pm; Fri, 6.30-9pm; monkbodhidharma.com.au
''Botanical gastronomy'': it means intricate, highly worked food in the raw. The team from Botanical Cuisine, which makes lush, organic, raw and vegan take-home products (like ''tiramisu-ish'') and runs ''cooking'' classes (where nothing is actually cooked) practises for its yet-to-open restaurant with pop-up 10-course lunches and dinners every season. A hand-drawn picture menu tells diners the hero ingredient of each dish, which might include heirloom carrot mousse with beetroot sorbet and yoghurt granita.
Botanical Cuisine Warehouse, 58-60 Sackville Street, Collingwood, 9419 4809; botanicalcuisine.com/nettle
Yong Green Food
Yong's 50-plus dishes are like a greatest hits of health movements. It has raw dishes, including the amazing ''rawsagna'' (lasagne); macrobiotic dishes; mock meat (''chicken'' burgers); vegan aplenty; organic dishes and some dishes without garlic or onion (in keeping with Ayurvedic philosophy). Yong has a neat, Asian-hep fitout with cute murals and heavy timber tables and school-style chairs.
421 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 9417 3338; open Tues & Thurs-Sun, noon-4pm; Tues-Sat, 5-10pm; Sun, 5-9pm
The Grain Store
The Grain Store falls into the home-made healthy category of dining. It's not hard line against sugar or white bread or even fried food, but is pro abundant salads such as a chickpea, asparagus, cauliflower, pumpkin seed and spinach leaf salad that comes with the humungous rolls (maybe stuffed with hand-flaked salmon and potato fishcake). The contemporary-cafe menu includes a vegan option (cauliflower with quinoa and nutrient-rich goji berries) and organic veg options (beetroot carpaccio).
- Nina Rousseau review.
- A sweet treat (recipe) from the otherwise-healthy Grain store.
517 Flinders Lane, city, 9972 6993; open Mon-Fri, 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-4pm; grainstore.com.au
Tofu Shop International
This traditional-style Japanese tofu shop has been thriving for more than 30 years. Hand-making tofu since 1982, it has limited bar seating (no tables) and a dozen vegetarian dishes made fresh every day. There might be a shiitake, carrot, ginger, kale and tofu broth or daikon radish and simmered tofu with soy-koji dressing. Add brown rice, along with a choice of sides and soy ice-cream for afters.
78 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9429 6204; open Mon-Fri, noon-8pm; Sat, noon-5pm.
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