175 Brunswick Street Fitzroy, Victoria 3065
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri 6pm-late; Sat-Sun 10am-late|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Family friendly, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9939 3293|
Controversial straw poll alert! Not-meat and faux-cheese: given the choice, would you? Really, though. I'm not asking should you; that's a whole other can of nutmeat. Two years ago I'd have said probably not. Granted, as a non-vegan it's hard to sink a spoon into a jar of something with the texture of plasticine and pretend it is exactly the same as Meredith goat's feta or will myself to believe that the thing made of Seitan and painted in a glaze genuinely resembles duck.
But times have changed. More to the point, chefs have. Spurred by the growing trend away from animal consumption, vegan cooking has advanced as dramatically as living dolls. Soon, none of us will know if we're eating meat or mushrooms, or making love to a human or a scary, sexy robot.
Is that bad news? I really do not know. I do know that if a meat-free revolution comes, I want Smith & Daughters' chef Shannon Martinez in charge.
Martinez is Melbourne's queen of delicious lies. From this neon-filled Brunswick Street bluestone, she and business partner Mo Wyse have been providing real and wannabe vegans with a fun, Latin American-flavoured alternative to choking down dahl in a haze of nag champa for four years. Now they've turned their sleights of ham on Italy – a country I'm not even convinced has a word for vegan. And damned if the menu isn't just freakishly convincing but objectively delicious standing up to the real thing.
Cue every cynic and Italian in Melbourne spraying espresso. I hear you. I've eaten pizzas covered in not-zzarella and have not been swayed. I've eaten cashew cheesecakes and never not used quotes around "cheese". This is different.
Martinez's "oxtail" ragu, made with compressed mushrooms, has such perfect meaty taste and fibrous texture, backed by such a dark pitch-perfect gravy it's been sent back in panic. Both the polenta served with it, and an eggplant involtini where fudgy sheets of eggplant have been bathed in rich sugo, filled with basil-flavoured not-ricotta and draped in grilled "mozzarella", are freaks of dairy-free nature. Who knew? Martinez did.
The not-actually-a-vegan chef has worked hard for the better part of a decade faking it. But she's also just a good chef with keen balance.
That involtini's charm is the acid tang of the napoli sauce. Her ragu's richness is offset by carrots braised to the point of sweet.
Sure, the menu has novelty. Gently smoky, earthy and tangy crimson sheets of "beef carpaccio" are a clear sub in, but a trade secret you'll be pressed to guess. And when combined with grissini, capers, bits of sharp, fake parmesan and horseradish cream, it's not far from base.
See also the thick-noodled cacio e pepe tossed with white Kampot pepper and more of that parmesan – a Greek product with legitimate stank. And a straight old deliciously vegan soup of chickpeas, radicchio and tubetti pasta.
I don't love the chicken schnitzel, but that's possibly meat-eater privilege talking. It's fun to see those giant schnitties hit the tables, crisp, crumbed edges hanging off plates, and it's probably a rare treat for vegans to get a steak knife. But it's a lot of one-note marinated soy protein. Split it between at least four. You have bigger un-fish to fry.
Like the kingpin menu surprise of the squid rice: a sort of loose risotto of scored konjac, calamari-ish strips with just a plausible amount of chew in a vivid broth that's totally electric with olives, saffron and a little sambuca.
The impressiveness is in the suspension of disbelief. I know the carpaccio isn't real, I just don't mind. The combination is tasty.
You won't believe the "nduja" on puffed rounds of pizza dough either, but it still tastes like a good, spicy caponata. What's to hate?
Lesson learnt: if you're going to fake it, you'd better be able to make it in the first place. Martinez cooks this stuff so well it's basically witchcraft. Grab your pitchforks.
But make sure you stick them in the silky baked vesuvius dessert first: chocolate sable layered with quince and pepper ice-cream, shrouded in torched amaretto meringue is everyone's friend.
Pro Tip: Take a sceptic – preferably an Italian one – and blow their mind.
Go-to Dish: Konjak squid and saffron rice ($22).