From Ras Vatika and Tart Bakery to The Butcher's Son; Khu khu; Forest; and Sunflower Thai, Auckland does have a handful of vegetarian restaurants, but the small list pales in comparison to the breadth of non-vegetarian restaurants. Because the list of Auckland plant-based restaurants is rather small, each new eatery added means one more cuisine represented in this city's plant based repertoire and one more suburb has a local specifically catering to vegetarians and vegans.
The latest addition to this city's plant-based offering is East, and as the name alludes to, the cuisine here spans the whole continent of Asia. Spot Beijing's Peking Duck replaced with Peking Jackfruit, Indonesia's Gado Gado Salad, a Southern Thai Yellow Curry and of course Szechuan Chinese Dan Dan Noodles. The venture is a labour of love from the vegetarian Jhunjhnuwala family who own the new Sudima Hotel. It has a menu estimated to be 75% vegan friendly, a moody bottle-green and blonde wood interior created by Luchetti Krelle, and a capacity over 100.
The interior at East. Photo credit: Jono Parker.
Chef Harmeet Singh cut his teeth at Bamboo, a top Asian restaurant in Mumbai, and hopes to use the piquant, sour, sweet and umami notes of the Asian flavour profile to create depth in his menu without requiring meat. Which brings us to the unusual decision to use the cuisine of an entire continent, as opposed to the more usual practice of focusing on a country, province, or town's particular cuisine. Because it does seem odd to have such a general focus, when some of the culinary traditions of Asia continent are as different from each other as Italian food is from Uruguayan. However, considering the team of chefs hail from Japan, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, if anyone is qualified to present a menu representing all of Asia, they are. Also, the menu's raison d'etre is to sample dishes and techniques from all over Asia to create a menu that doesn't feel as if it is lacking anything by avoiding meat. It does that, and it's hard to imagine a menu doing so with such variety of flavour while sticking to just one culinary region. When you look at the way East pushes the boundaries of what vegetarian food can be, it makes sense that they've chosen 'Asia' rather than a more focused area.
For example - East have achieved a vegetarian version of Dan Dan Noodles (pictured at top) that has the creamy, oily, unctuous sauce that I look for in a bowl of the pork-fat-rich original Sichuan dish. Though I couldn't wrap my head around how they'd managed that, even without the pork-mince, this mushroom-mince version ticks that box, as well as being spicy and nutty with springy noodles. Hats off to the chefs - this dish must have taken some experimenting to perfect the taste and texture of the original with plant-based ingredients, but they have done it.
Cheung Fun & Bang Bang Shitake & Som Tam Salad. Photo credit: Jono Parker.
Another way that East have coaxed science itself into submission in their quest for plant-based excellence, is their vegan Kaffir Lime and Coconut Creme Caramel. Yes, you read that right: vegan Creme Caramel: a custard-based dessert with no eggs. Have a look around online and you'll be hard pressed to find a version of Creme Caramel with fewer than three eggs but East have managed it - in the form of this large firm version. It is aromatic and refreshing with the combination of kaffir lime and coconut making each other sing and as desserts go, this one isn't too sweet. I ate the whole thing, even though I was already stuffed.
Peking Jackfruit Pancakes, Tapioca Chips, Plum Sauce. Photo credit: Jono Parker.
Meat-eaters won't be disappointed here because the dishes don't feel like they are missing anything - the Ginger Caramelised Bang Bang Shitake Mushrooms (which are also vegan and gluten free) have a richly chewy sink-your-teeth-in factor that a few vegetarians in my life have mentioned missing. However, East don't seem to have tried to recreate the flavour of the meat, they have simply played to the mushroom's own natural umami flavour with a sticky, spicy, sweet ginger-caramel coating that is usually reserved for such dishes as chicken wings or spicy ribs. A similar sticky sweet sauce is on the jackfruit in the Peking Jackfruit Pancakes, Tapioca Chips, Plum Sauce (served as an interactive set of pieces to be put together at the table). The rest of the menu is full of dishes that inspire an 'ooh': Caramelised Black Pepper Tofu; Typhoon Shelter Fried Rice; Chocolate Spring Rolls, to name a few.
For the cocktail list, the team at East enlisted the help of beverage experts Simon Kelly and Ben Legget and put their Wonka-esque energies into finding ingredients that raise eyebrows, and cocktails that spark joy from the moment you read them on the menu. I can already hear my foodie friends exclaiming "Lemongrass and Coriander infused vodka!?"; "blackberry and balsamic bitters!?"; or "jasmine syrup!?". I had an Umeshu Dandy, which was a little like an Old Fashioned, but with sweet Vermouth, coffee & pimento bitters and the aforementioned Lapsang Souchong atomiser - which I just couldn't pass up. It's also worth mentioning that the wine list is 100% vegan and organic.
The Umeshu Dandy cocktail at East. Photo credit: Jono Parker.
There's a playful almost whimsical spirit of invention on the menu at East that allows diners to experience vegetarian food that ticks boxes usually only ticked by food that contains animal products. But behind that playfulness is hard work, careful thought, and determination to present a menu strong enough to draw a crowd. The interior is moody, slick and inviting but as the team behind East know, a nice interior might draw patrons in, but is is the menu that will keep the crowds coming back. And East's menu has a variety of taste, texture, format and place of origin, but is still cohesive and concise. It isn't just 'good for a vegetarian restaurant' - it's just 'good'.
So to my vegetarian friends (and all my other friends for that matter), let me know when you're free, I can't wait for you to try these Dan Dan Noodles...
Open 11am-10pm, 7 days a week.
63-67 Nelson Street, Auckland CBD