21 Bond Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||Daily noon-3pm; 6pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Shane Delia, Daniel Giraldo|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9629 5900|
Are you vegetarian yet? You should be. Ethically, I hear good things. But more importantly, it's super in right now, right up there with doing a digital cleanse and quitting Facebook. Just as importantly, it doesn't suck to be vegetarian, even vegan, in restaurants anymore. See Carlton's Green Man's Arms, the new all-vego pub; the completely plant-based Latin American food at Smith & Daughters, and the sandwich bars and pizzerias erupting everywhere where nothing but soya crops died in aid of your dinner.
True, there aren't as many purists at the pointy end of dining (after you'd been to Transformer, the choices dwindle), but if you can share space with the meat-inclined, the top end has you covered. Every fine diner from Attica to the Royal Mail does vegan degs. But having eaten at a number of the top tier with friends who like food without faces, it's chef Shane Delia's decade-old Maha on Bond Street that repeatedly comes out on top.
So we interrupt our regular broadcast to bring you Maha: The vego edition. Not only has Delia's mod-Maltese-Australian restaurant been flying the flag for animal-abstainers for six years (by the end of 2018, they expect their meatless menus to account for 15 per cent of the restaurant's entire output), it's recently had a major nip and tuck by Techne Architects that's worth everyone's attention.
Dinner whichever way you're playing it now takes place in a subterranean space that's lost a lot of its boudoir redness for webbed gold bar stools, smoky art and mirrors and a ceiling feature of staggered wooden panels resembling filing dividers to get any stationery fan hot. Exposed now: a 2000-bottle cellar and kitchen-turned-centrepiece-fishbowl. Apparently the room is infused with custom scents. I smell cumin, and money.
For everyone the journey starts with a smooth ushering to table, or the lengthy bar if you're early, where cocktails are twisted with arak and pomegranate and are interesting if optional over essential. A sweet gin, lime, and anise-heavy arak would be better named as a twist on a southside than a "martini", but it's pleasant. I don't know if anyone's ordering the number featuring peanut butter, cream and Tia Maria, but I want to give them and the drink a long slow clap just for existing.
It's set menu only. Four, six or eight courses in vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, with the option to wine match.
There's crossover. Individual Turkish breads arrive coated with coarse salt and toasted coriander seeds to rip and dip in grassy olive oil and sesame-speckled dukkah, or run through a wave of smooth hummus with brown butter welled at its heart. Mixed olives drop hot, both in temperature and thanks to a roll around with fermented chilli paste fel fel.
Paths diverge here. In place of pickled mussels, for vegetarians it's cucumbers in a cool pool of yoghurt, soft but bright after a gentle soak in arak, salted with a dusting of dried olives. There are fine, fried pastry triangles with black bean centres daubed with sweet-pungent black garlic for punch. Rice-stuffed zucchini flowers are like crisp, mellow dolmades with the zucchini itself riding on top in a little cumin-fragrant tomato salad. Take note, when choosing the size of your adventure: this is course one.
It's also worth considering the wine match ($50-$85) if you want variety. There are fun finds by bottle in a list that's mostly repping Australia, France and Italy, but by-the-glass options start at $18 for a 2015 Rockford hand-picked riesling and run to $32.
The strongest dishes, as is almost always the case with vego/vegan cooking, are those devised from scratch rather than reverse-engineered to remove the meat. A borek shaped like an escargot pastry filled with a sharp garlicky mix of spinach and mushrooms and crowned with toasty slices of pine mushroom is all killer.
An eggplant double-act sees a fudgy plank dressed with the smoke of baba ghanoush, sweet pops of pomegranate and a rubble of herbs and fried shallots.
It's an adage proved in reverse. I'm not sure the vegan manti – dumplings of the Middle East, pinched to little crosses on the top – are at their best with a red lentil filling. The texture is a little play dough, but the shroud of shaved fennel, pinging with preserved orange and pinenuts, does a lot to lift their game. Ditto the dish of (quite) charred cauliflower on a cauli-hummus dressed with dill oil and a shallot dressing – it's hard to forget how good it is if you've tried the version topped with wagyu.
But otherwise there are few moments when you miss meat. It's a bright, inventive, texturally-diverse trip. Dessert is a triple hit of tart, almost savoury, sumac sorbet crowning a panna cotta on a crisp biscuit. A chill glass counters sweet strawberry granita with herbal basil sorbet. Turkish delight-filled doughnut balls, taken with a syrupy glass of the honey-and-spice house-infused arak, is a home run that's anyone's friend (so long as you bend to bee products). The whole operation is. Consider it next time you want a meat-free break without the self-flagellation.
Pro Tip: Take the wine match if you want variety. By-the-glass options are pricey.
Go-to Dish: The opening flurry: flatbreads and hummus; zucchini flower dolmades.