234 Toorak Rd South Yarra, VIC 3141
|Opening hours||Daily 6.30am-11pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Accommodation, Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
If you have ever queued for Shannon Martinez' vegan restaurant, Smith and Daughters, on Brunswick Street, or its off-shoot deli, you won't be surprised that tables at Lona Misa, a new Latin American-leaning vegan restaurant at South Yarra's Ovolo Hotel, are a challenge to book.
Despite eating meat, Martinez is Melbourne's undisputed queen of "facon it" when it comes to the dark art of meat substitutes. With veganism on trend and this being the first time Martinez has had a menu southside, conscious eaters are keen.
I say conscious eaters because the switcheroo genre of cooking – recreating dishes in a way that passes for the real deal – isn't every vegan's (or vegetarian's) cup of tea. There is plenty here for those who would rather just eat dishes created to celebrate veg.
Martinez has always admitted she is a gateway drug to veganism rather than a cheffy messiah for those who hate meat.
Increasingly, the world's environmental crisis, which has partly been tied to meat farming, is sucking the joy out of steaks. Now more businesses are making a stand. Chef Daniel Humm made headlines this month when he announced that Eleven Madison Park, a top-tier Manhattan restaurant, is going completely meat free. Sydney's Yellow, by team Monopole, is a hatted beacon of innovative food without faces.
So when the entire Ovolo Hotel group went veg last October, Martinez was the obvious choice to front the new Toorak Road venue's restaurant.
Less obvious is her partner in crime, Ian Curley, founder of Kirk's Wine Bar and Butcher's Diner. But with Martinez having only recently completed cancer treatment, the brains behind the menu can now juggle events while Curley keeps the kitchen ticking.
Is this a restaurant for you? It's not just for card-carrying vegans. The entire point of Martinez' work is to bring meat eaters to a party you shouldn't necessarily realise is vegan.
The cocktails include margaritas, Martinez martinis (made with a dash of orange bitters for bite) and crushy, boozy rum drinks that set the party tone, while the menu is jam-packed with things such as Brazilian seafood stew moqueca and even Martinez' play on Spain's blood sausage, morcilla, sans blood.
Meat eaters may be able to tell the difference, but how well Martinez' fakes it is worth the price of admission alone.
That morcilla is probably the biggest triumph. A piece of fried bread is topped by a texturally accurate, cinnamon-rich cipher using beetroot and red wine to make a tangy, meaty, silky bite that brings those iron-rich metallic elements to the fore. It's topped with faux egg yolk (made by company Vegg), which provides both viscosity and richness.
The fish fillet in the moqueca is taro-based, with a fibrous, flaky quality and even a thin, elastic silver layer subbing for skin. Locked in that coconutty, tomato-based liquor, it's a fine faux.
Prawns made from konjac, a starchy tuber, feature in the seafood stew and also in raw fish dish aguachile. A straw poll of vegan friends lands in the 50-50 camp when it comes to their fairly bouncy texture and flavour that's reminiscent of beloved and loathed seafood sticks. Either way the aguachile liquor is spot on, ripe with well-balanced lime juice and salt, scattered with avocado and herbs.
You can steer clear of the mock meats entirely. It's a lengthy menu by any standards, with plenty from the straight veg aisle. See the pilaf-style rice cooked with green garlic oil and scythed by tart green tomatoes. Croquettes made with padron peppers and showered with manchego are everything you want in a crisp-shelled, molten-hearted starter.
From the Josper grill comes whole cauliflower and broccoli, plus a smoky pinchos morunos kebab of oyster mushrooms. Usually, the dish is made with pork rubbed in ras el hanout spice mix (a Moorish mix usually heavy in cumin, oregano, coriander, turmeric, paprika). The mushrooms are born for marinade and make a compelling dish.
Decor-wise the restaurant is a bit of a theme park. The whole hotel is going for a fun, youthful and very '70s retro-chic vibe. The vibrant reds and greens, replica oil paintings slashed the words metelo en la boca ("put it in your mouth"), graffiti-style, call to mind American restaurant chains. That said, the booths are comfortable and tech-enthusiasts (and hotel guests) will be thrilled at the USB and power points at the tables.
You should also brace (as with all restaurants right now) for a little extra wait time. It takes a few prompts for the dessert tray to come our way, but it's worth it for the rich chocolate and fig jam tart topped with a crunchy praline. There's even a wobbly caramel flan.
Respect is due to this next-gen restaurant tackling a problem we'll all have to face. If you want people to come to the party, you might as well make it a fiesta, right?
Drinks: Latin-leaning cocktails, and Australian wines with a couple of craft beer options.
Pro Tip: The restaurant may look a touch chintzy but the '70s rooms are fun.