Transformer

Go-to dish: Ricotta and rye gnocchi is worthy of a medal.
Go-to dish: Ricotta and rye gnocchi is worthy of a medal. Photo: Pat Scala

99 Rose St Fitzroy, VIC 3065

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Opening hours Mon-Thu 5:30 – 10:00 PM, Fri-Sat 11:30 AM – 11:00 PM, Sun 11:30 AM – 9:30 PM
Features Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Bar, Degustation, Events, Green-eco focus, Groups, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Bryce Edwards
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9419 2022

A lot of thoughts jump to mind when you hear about an all-new upscale vegetarian restaurant in a Fitzroy warehouse. Especially when it's run by the team who brought you Vegie Bar. And if those same Bondi Hipster visions are flashing across your cortex right now, push them away. Because Transformer isn't what you think.

I actually don't want to call Transformer a vegetarian restaurant at all. It is, but that label makes it sound dogmatic and clubby and it's not. The term also undermines the universal appeal of what's on the plate. Good food is good food, and this is 2015. It's time we stopped handicapping vegetable dishes and declared them equal to their meaty counterparts. I am carrot, hear me roar etc. 

That's largely what chef Luke Florence is doing: creating complex, thoughtful dishes for all, whether you have your third eye tattooed on your face or harbour a deep suspicion of all things #cleanliving. 

Shrub-luxe: Inside Transformer.
Shrub-luxe: Inside Transformer. Photo: Pat Scala

Fluffy ricotta and rye gnocchi make a compelling case in point. They come with a just-sweet compote of wild blueberries, satiny dots of carrot puree and mung beans for crunch, all tied together with browned butter. It's not a dish that needs a caveat. It deserves a medal.

You're also walking into a pretty stunning space. The ex-transformer factory has been turned what you might call shrub-luxe, or potting-shed-chic. Vines creep up mesh panels towards the soaring timber ceilings, and small spot lights sprout from between the pots, pouring light onto bright plates, pretty people and quatrefoil banquettes. 

The bar here is stool-less, so drinking and snacking takes place either in the (breezy) corral to the right of the entrance or an ivy-covered courtyard out the back.

I am carrot, hear me roar: Pickled vegetables.
I am carrot, hear me roar: Pickled vegetables. Photo: Pat Scala

Pumpkin and tahini dip sluiced with pomegranate molasses and olive oil makes a tasty opening bid, though it's the super malty rye and quinoa crisps that keep us scooping. In other impressive wheat-free work, they do a fluffy steamed spelt bun, spread with spicy mayo and clamped around fried tofu and lightly pickled cucumber. It's one of the better bao around. 

Florence and team know how to push flavour without leaning on easy crutches. A wedge of compressed watermelon is texturally meaty and vinegary against crisp, smoky scorched cubes of the fresh stuff. Also on the plate, getting along just fine even though you wouldn't think it, are heirloom tomatoes and almond feta (tastes real with a grainy feel), dressed with fresh mint and a salty, chunky pistachio oil.  

That's not to say Transformer is cliche-free. Tattooed and bronzed specimens sit between the vines, and one waiter tells me I should get the pear semifreddo bellini, even on this freezing night, because "it is humanity's purpose to transcend the physical restrictions of our environment". I'll tell you to get it too, but mostly because it's a tart and refreshing drink.

In spite of the prevalence of hot ingredients, (yes you can get kombucha and shots involving kale), no one seems intent on making you drink the wellness Kool-Aid. Service is genuinely friendly (if a little vague on wines and spirits) but they're happy to leave you to it. 

It's boundary-defying food. A tasty Thai-Italian mash-up (Thai-talian? I-Thai?) sees a golden fried tranche of polenta and baby king oyster mushrooms, shallots and cumin-roasted cauliflower bedded on a stripe of lemongrass-heavy green curry "pesto" with soothing drops of coconut foam.

See also corn fritters with all the flavours of a really good Thai fishcake crowned with chutney-like red curry eggplant situation and a soft boiled egg in a salty, black sesame shell. 

At dessert, a chevre cheesecake topped with a honey-roasted fig and a pear sorbet disappears off the plate a lot quicker than the chocolate and buckwheat mousse cake made with cacao powder, various coconut extracts and that earthy grain. There's nothing wrong with the latter, it's a huge hit with the vegan crowd, it just doesn't translate as well for those with cream-enabled palates. 

And really that's the key to Transformer's widespread appeal. They don't try to retro-fit meat dishes here. Instead, they're innovating, building from scratch and casting vegetables as stars. The result is vegetarian that will never be an approximation of something else. We're not talking "good for vegetarian". We're talking good vegetarian. Get among it.

THE LOW-DOWN
Pro tip It's also a pretty place for breakfast
Status Calm and collected
Go-to dish Ricotta and rye gnocchi with wild blueberries and pumpkin mousse ($15)