It is repeatedly surprising to find vegetarian dishes offered only sparsely on serious restaurant menus, and sometimes still it feels a bit like a token offering, put together without a passion for taste. I mean, perhaps this is my misperception, but vegetarian doesn't have to mean wearing a hair shirt, or throwing complexity out the window.
So it is really welcome to have Monster, in the foyer of Ovolo Nishi, which was reincarnated not so long ago as an entirely vegetarian restaurant, which it will continue to be until October, when it completes its Year of the Veg challenge.
You would think others might have done this before now, but reflecting on the menu here at Monster, putting together an entire suite of dishes at restaurant level is perhaps more challenging than as it at first appears. Presumably there would also be some consumer resistance to the move. Think about the person you go out to dinner with, or the family or friends who most often accompany you. It seems unscientifically likely that at least one of them would be stumped and irritated by finding themselves at a vegetarian restaurant, perhaps even down the menu and leave. We, however, are very happy to be here, having left behind our prime meat eating years.
And pleasingly, there's not a hint of compromise or tokenism at Monster. Intensity and adventurism is the order of the day. This is perhaps best captured in the spaetzle ($25), little squiggly nuggety pieces of pasta, fried with wild mushrooms. It's served with gruyere and a runny egg to stir through, tartare style. This is intense, has loads of mouthfeel, and is a really likeable dish - except, to my taste, for the unsubtle truffle flavour which is quickly overwhelming.
A head of cauliflower ($32) is presented as a gentle curry, whole, cooked soft and appealingly charred. It is sitting in a sweet coconut satay sauce with macadamias for crunch and served with a sour sambal which only partly offsets the sweetness. We like this dish and would return to it.
The broccolini ($9) is a stride too far. It's been nicely grilled collapsed and charred but the smokey flavour is overwhelming and detracts from the lovely simplicity of charred broccolini.
There is a potato dish on the menu ($24), which would normally be firmly in my comfort zone. If I lived alone (not wishing it, just stressing) I would eat a diet consisting entirely of baked potatoes, yes, every night. Did you read the story about the 72-year-old farmer who would eat the same thing every day: two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits, a pear, an orange and four sandwiches with paste. His uncle ate bread, butter, cheese and tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I relate to this man. Food is your friend; it represents your home, and you don't want shape-shifting in that space; you want constancy. So it's baked potatoes, albeit baked potatoes drowned under other stuff: parmesan, or a hard goat's cheese. My new yellow tomato relish, thanks to a recipe via former Young cherry grower Michael Fawcett, or red onion jam. Avocado, creme fraiche, salt, pepper. So many food groups! And the requisite balance of saltiness, sweetness and umami that a palate demands and bulge that a belly demands.
Tonight's potato dish, however, is the least successful of our evening. The potatoes are served whole with leeks and what's described as a whipped vichyssoise egg cream. It's a super rich and creamy dish which we find difficult to get though.
Back to the beginning of our meal, we like the beetroot "tartare" ($18), which is essentially beetroot dip, fresh with orange flavours with a horseradish cream and a substantial tapioca cracker. And love the edamame ($9).
Dark chocolate cake and almond croquant, chai tea anglaise, hibiscus granita caramelised white chocolate ($16) is seriously good looking, layers of dark and white with raspberry and flower petals. It's super sweet and rather biscuity.
Popcorn parfait with raspberry, beurre noisette sable, candied corn, salted caramel ($18) is a chewy likeable ice cream, although the popcorn and other elements are overly sweet.
Monster has kept its style with the switch to vegetarian - experimental, intense, complex, borrowing from Asia and elsewhere. Not every dish has hit the mark for us tonight, lost a little in creamy sauces or unstable flavours of smoke and truffle, and we are eyeing the menu wondering whether the "ancient grains ragu" with black cabbage, or the slow roasted heritage carrots with sauerkraut might have left us more enthralled with the power of vegetables.
The bar here has become a favourite haunt and for good reason. The feel of the place remains super cool. A kind of art deco vibe, a mix of op shop and antique in the furnishings, with bright art installations and gorgeous lighting. Actually very low lighting tonight so even reading the menu is a mission, but I like this. It's soothing. The service is good, friendly, relaxed and helpful and the wine list is very good.
Monster Kitchen and Bar
Address: Ovolo Nishi, 25 Edinburgh Ave, New Acton
Hours: breakfast, Monday to Sunday, 7-11am; dinner, Thursday to Saturday, 6-10.30pm; bar, 2-10.30pm
Owners: Ovolo Group
Chef: executive chef Kenny Tse
Noise: No problem
Vegetarian: Most definitely, all of the menu