Shakahari

<em>Shakahari.</em>
Shakahari. 

201-203 Faraday St Carlton, VIC 3053

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Opening hours Mon-Sat noon to 3pm; Sun-Thurs, 6pm to 9.30pm; Fri-Sat 6pm to 10pm
Features Licensed, BYO, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Beh Kim Un
Seats 80
Payments Diner's Club, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9347 3848

If you bother to dip into the evidence, it's pretty clear that humans should eat less meat. There are environmental reasons: methane-rich sheep and cow farts are a significant contributor to climate change and grazing is a terribly inefficient way of turning grain into dinner. There are moral considerations. Is it really right to kill the fatted calf, feathered fowl and penned pig? Health is a factor, too: meat is implicated in high cholesterol, high blood pressure and some cancers. Still, for those of us who love the taste of flesh, or simply find it hard to imagine life without Sunday roast or steamed pork bun, shifting to a vegetarian diet is as likely as shifting to Mullumbimby to grow alfalfa and dreadlocks.

I've been vegetarian on two occasions. The first time I was 14 and fancied myself a bit of a Buddhist. I swore off meat, self-righteously announced my new credo and, three days later, was sprung sneaking a sausage roll from the fridge. The second time, I stuck at it for three years, riding the slipstream of a fanatical boyfriend who saw dreadlocks and alfalfa as mere baby steps. But the relationship ended, I had a break-up steak and there have been plenty more since. This year, though, I've cut down on meat, at home and in restaurants. I don't pretend I'm stopping global warming one cow fart at a time but every soy bean counts.

When Shakahari opened in 1974, vegetarians were lumped in with hippies, greenies and other curious alternative lifestylers. When current owner Beh Kim Un took over in 1980, red-blooded blokes still grumbled about rabbit food but vegetarianism had started to move mainstream. Under Kim's stewardship, the restaurant has maintained its peace-love-and-understanding vibe, but the food has evolved. Vegetarian food is treated as a cuisine, rather than a system to get calories into the meat-phobic. Kim reckons just 20% of his clientele are strict vegos anyway and I believe him: I only saw one cable-knit jumper in the whole place.

The restaurant is in a colourful but sparsely decorated cottage. The food is good, with a skew to Asian flavours. Eggplant-wrapped avocado slivers are fried and served in a brilliant green coriander sauce: they're a tasty balance of soft and crisp. Tofu and seitan (wheat cake) cubes are skewered, fried and doused in a rich, spicy satay sauce. Agnolotti are stuffed with a fragrant blend of pumpkin and corn.

The hippie outlook persists in the titles of some dishes. If there's another Sino-Tibetan Dialogue on a Melbourne menu, I'll eat my mock leather boot. Political statements should always be so tasty: the Dialogue is a soy-drenched rice mountain studded with chestnuts. Pumpkin and turnip foothills ebb to rippled plains of pickled cabbage. Enjoyment of this clean, gentle meal was marred somewhat by a waiter telling us the kitchen was closing so if we wanted desserts we had better order them within five minutes, or better yet, right now. We plumped for a black sesame bavarois that was deeply nutty but a little too jiggly, possibly because it was a gelatine-free zone.

In many ways, Shakahari feels like the old Carlton, when it was about chain-smoking professors, pub-owning ruckmen and $60 rent but it's a place for now as well. There's nothing old-fashioned about knowing that nobody died to make your dinner.

http://www.shakahari.com.au/