Thursday 23 January 2014

Veggie Kitchen

159, St George's Rd, Northcote, VIC 3071
Veggie Kitchen on Urbanspoon
Blink and you'll miss it. This restaurant is not a part of a shopping or dining strip. It is located in a tiny row of shops on St George's Road. It is across the road from Batman Park. This tiny Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant is a lovely option for diners in the north.There is not a lot of space but diners here seem quite happy with the configuration. While it is tiny, it's not cramped.

It is quite a dim restaurant as even during the early evening as there is not a lot of natural sunlight. However, it has a simple warm feel to it. You almost feel you might be visiting a friend's home (in Taiwan) for an intimate meal.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination but I like this place enough to look forward to going for a visit regularly.

Things to do nearby: Nothing much around here other than Batman Park and it's a 10 minute walk to High Street, Northcote. The No.112 tram stops near the front.

The Food
I am going to write about the quality and tastiness of the dishes. However, in the later section, I am going to talk about Chinese Vegetarian food more generally because it is quite a different style of vegetarian cuisine to Western vegetarian in that it uses substantial gluten products.

Chai Po Omelette
My favourite dish here is the Chai Po Omelette (Omelette with preserved turnip bits), which is light and fluffy and flavoursome. Yes, there is a bit of grease on this but what good omelette doesn't. It is a great way to start the meal or even with rice. Dare I say it is even better than my Mum's? No! More that it is a different version, fluffier and very light compared to my Mum's which is packed with turnip and most solid.

The Lettuce Delight (Vegetarian Sang Choi Bao) is built on layers of texture and flavours, with crispy soy and tofu bits wrapped in fresh lettuce. I am not a huge fan of Sang Choi Bao to begin with but this is not a bad dish. I prefer their Tofu Rolls which are really flavoursome and just simply yummy (and not only because it's deep fried).  For me, the Tofu Rolls are preferable preferable to the Beancurd Rolls on offer - simply because it has different textures compared to the Beancurd Rolls.
Tofu Roll and Vegie Delight
Beancurd Rolls and Curry Puffs (homemade)
There are also the various dumplings on offer here and I think the surprise package for me are the Pearl Rice Balls - balls of glutinous rice goodness with mushroom, celery and tofu. Delicate little balls dipped in bean sauce which are really yummy, though I normally don't like celery. They also do vegetarian ShioMai (Shao Mei) which don't look great but are actually quite light and flavoursome. You can tell from the pics below that they are not factory made (given the varying sizes) and are clearly made on premises and the freshness shows.

Pearl Rice Balls
There are also larger dishes and mains on the menu (though I did prefer the smaller ones already described). The two larger dishes that I did like were the Panfried Oyster Mushrooms and the Stir-Fried Vermicelli (both pictured below). The Mushrooms were smokey and really flavoursome and I could have had a double serve. However, I would have like some sort of sauce to bring the brocolli and the mushrooms together (though that might have detracted from the flavour of the mushrooms). 

What was undoubtedly delicious was the vermicelli which had the right balance of flavours, texture and freshness. I loved it and it is just as good as the ones offered by many vegetarian places in SEAsia (if not better than most).
Panfried Oyster Mushrooms
Stir-Fried Vermicelli
We also tried the Sweet and Sour Tofu and the Hong Shao Tofu. To me, these dishes were more average, compared to all the ones I have already mentioned. For example, the Sweet and Sour dish needed perhaps a bit more vinegar and onions while the HongShao dish could do with a bit more smokiness. Don't get me wrong, these were not bad dishes at all but in comparison to the excellent small dishes, they just weren't as great.
Sweet and Sour Tofu and Fried Rice

Hong Shao Tofu
The Service
The understated friendly service is just charming here. They know their food and they take pride in it which is great to see. The dishes came in a very timely manner (even second orders) and the politeness and quiet pride makes this place a lovely down to earth place to dine in. What a comfortable dining space.

It is lovely to know that Chinese Vegetarian Cuisine is well represented here in Melbourne. Sure, they have made some nods to Australian sensibilities but in a positive manner. For example, there is a lot less grease in the dishes here compared to similar dishes in Asia. That is surely a good thing. The layers of flavours are still there and for a non-vegetarian, I still enjoy going there.

Cultural Moment
There are two main ways to indicate vegetarian dishes in Chinese cuisine; There's sùshí (素食) ("vegetarian cuisine") and  zhāicài (斋菜) ("Buddhist cuisine"). Instead of me writing about it extensively, there's a pretty good wikipedia entry on this topic - Buddhist cuisine.

While western vegetarian dishes rely primarily on fresh vegetables, Chinese vegetarian cuisine extensively employs the use of bean curd (tofu) of various types and wheat gluten (used in many of the 'mock' meats), in addition to fresh vegetables.

It is also crucial to remember that Chinese cuisine is not just about freshness and balance of flavours, textures are just as important. The inter-play between crunchiness, softness and chewiness in the one dish is sometimes seens as really crucial. For example, the Lettuce Delight served at Veggie Kitchen does this well in that it has the fresh crisp lettuce, the crunchiness of the soy and tofu flakes, and chewiness of little bits of beancurd. Another example is soy crisp, and Chinese doughnut, and boiled peanuts in congee.This is one of the things that many who have not grown up with Chinese cuisine struggle with. Enjoying differing textures is important in many dishes. The use of wheat gluten is a bit of an art in Chinese vegetarian cuisine because you get completely different textures ranging from really soft to really crunchy varieties. So, the long and short of it is - this is an acquired taste for those who are not familiar but it is all very Chinese.


  1. I'm very fond of this restaurant! I'll make a point of ordering the omelette next time I visit. :-)

  2. I am sooooo sad that this restaurant is now closed :(

  3. Valuable for information.. Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

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