Going fully vegetarian for a year is a risky move for any restaurant.
But if the dishes being served at Monster Kitchen & Bar this evening are any guide, the staff won’t need to polish their CVs for a while.
From tonight and for the next year, the NewActon restaurant will ditch meat and fish and offer a plant-based menu only, after owner Ovolo Group committed to 365 days of vegetarian dining across all of its hotel restaurants and bars in Australia and Hong Kong.
The key to getting it right is very much the person behind the burners, Monster’s new executive chef Paul Wilson.
His pedigree made him the perfect choice to steer the restaurant in this unexpected new direction.
Paul spent two-and-a-half years as a sous chef at Denmark’s Geranium restaurant, the three-Michelin-starred diner incongruously housed in a Copenhagen football stadium which has consistently scored goals for its seasonal, produce-driven menus.
Rated one of the top five restaurants in the world in 2019, Geranium’s executive chef Rasmus Kofoed is himself vegetarian.
“I’m very used to cooking this way having worked alongside Rasmus for so long,” says Paul of his culinary hero.
Paul also spent two years at the ultra-exclusive Laucala Island Resort owned by Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz. In the remote Fijian archipelago, this playground of the rich and famous had all the accoutrements befitting any self-respecting billionaire – private plane, speedboat, championship golf course, state-of-the-art submarine …
But getting hold of fresh produce proved elusive. The chef spent considerable time building up the onsite gardens and organic farms that supplied not just the 1,400 ha island’s restaurants but fed the large contingent of Fijian staff who serviced the resort.
Cooking sustainably and seasonally – as and when the produce became available – became an essential part of the job.
Local, sustainable and seasonal will also be the ethos behind Monster’s vegetarian offer, says Ovolo Hotel Canberra General Manager Nathan Dean, who believes the new veggie menu will benefit not just the environment, but the business, despite being “a massive sceptic” when the vegetarian concept was initially floated. He was quickly won over by Paul’s innovative and creative approach.
“I’m not a vegetarian. Give me a steak or fish every time. But as soon as I started trying Paul’s dishes, I thought ‘Wow. If I can eat this, and be excited about the food, and feel full at the end of the meal and not like I’ve been pushing salad and carrot around a plate, then other people are going to love it too’,” says Nathan.
“It forces us to reinvent what we are doing and nothing is wasted. There won’t be the food miles on a dish that you have with getting daily deliveries of fish or steak.”
Nathan adds that Monster has installed new food waste technology called ORCA that converts every scrap of plant waste to water, which is used on the hotel’s gardens and the restaurant’s burgeoning veggie patch.
Chilli, capsicum, cucumbers, herbs and more are grown on-site to keep Monster in good supply and relationships have been forged with providore Pialligo Estate and local farmers to supply fresh fruit and veg. The kitchen team has also launched a pickling program so the bounty can be used year-round.
The new vegetarian menu will change according to what produce is available on the day, and be available as bar snacks, a shared meal or individual serves – whatever you fancy, says Nathan, who has become slightly addicted to the parmesan churros with ‘truff’ and cheddar fondue and also tips the spaetzle as a ‘must-try’.
Spaetzle is a German egg noodle dish and is course number three on tonight’s five-course menu. Smothered in a gruyere sauce with truffle oil and topped with a perfectly poached 63-degree egg, it is rich and satisfying. A perfectly crafted, flower-shaped parmesan biscuit crowns the dish.
We also try heirloom tomatoes, fennel lavosh, feta snow, olive crumb and preserved lemon (the tomatoes are full of flavour, the consommé poured over the dish leaving a refreshing and flavoursome soup to scoop up at the end), as well carrots slow roasted for three hours with smoked kelp, sauerkraut, white bean cassoulet and furikake (Japanese seasoning).
A tofu-based blueberry cheesecake with coconut sorbet, lemon thyme and coconut meringue rounds off a perfectly balanced meal.
My favourite dish of the evening is our first course – a hay-smoked beetroot tartare with horseradish emulsion, tapioca cracker and sorrel. The flavour combination in this delicate and pretty dish is amazing. I’m tipping it to be a hot favourite on a summer’s evening with a crisp glass of white, or a perfectly balanced precursor to a larger meal.
Will this new concept at Monster take off? As we begin to think more about sustainability and provenance, the timing is certainly right.
Monster is offering a very real alternative for those ‘flexitarians’ among us who are keen to reduce our intake of meat, but not quite ready to take the full leap to vegetarianism. The menu is an innovative and sophisticated collection of flavours that show the depth and variety that can be derived from plant-based cuisine, with creativity, care and skill.
Vegetarians will love it because, for once, they are front and centre – what a novelty not having to scan a carnivore-focussed menu looking for those scant offerings suitable to their preferences.
Organisers of group dinners, too, may find themselves smugly satisfied at the prospect of having pretty much something to suit everyone in one perfectly formed menu.
You’ve got 365 days to check it out. I’d strongly recommend getting in quick to make your booking.
Monster Kitchen & Bar’s Year of the Veg menu is available from today.