The Blue Bird Vegetarian Cafe, Mt Eden

By Peter Calder


Rating: ****
Address: 299 Dominion Rd
Phone: (09) 623 4900
Opening hours: From 10am to 8pm (Mon-Tues); 3pm (Wed); 9pm (Thurs-Fri); 2.30pm (Sat)

The Blue Bird Vegetarian Cafe on Dominion Road. Photo / Herald on Sunday
The Blue Bird Vegetarian Cafe on Dominion Road. Photo / Herald on Sunday

A few short years as a half-hearted hippie gave me a bad impression of vegetarianism. For years, I associated it with huge, defiantly bland stews of soybeans and lentils made from recipes in the Whole Earth Catalogue by humourless women in sarongs. You put a spoonful in your mouth and chewed. It didn't much matter how long you chewed because the consistency didn't change much, so you swallowed. This was a mistake because it presented you with the problem of having to take another spoonful. If you were lucky, there was brown rice and blackstrap molasses for dessert.

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain's assessment that "vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit" overstates the case, but he has a point. Cooking for the Professor has certainly forced me to rein in my carnivorous passions - she would be happy if I never served her meat again - but I keep the recipes for seven-hour leg of lamb and chicken cacciatore close at hand.

Finding a vegetarian restaurant to review for a vegetarian issue was something of a challenge. I Googled "vegetarian restaurants auckland" and was directed in short order to pages with pictures of a lamb rack, crispy-skinned snapper or glistening Peking duck. That's because all restaurants like to be seen as catering to vegetarians, even if the menu expresses a disdain that borders on the Bourdainian. Indian places are honourable exceptions, of course, but most places seem to say "Give them the carbonara and hold the bacon" or "chuck some asparagus in the risotto; that'll shut them up".

It seems a shame, really, since vegetarian food can be very good. Especially if you've got a nice piece of pork belly to go with it (just kidding).

Eventually, I alighted on this extremely fine establishment which is, I later learnt, legendary among Auckland vegetarians. It is, as the name suggests, very blue outside and in, and the colour, along with ethereal soprano music wafting through the cool interior, had a calming effect on everybody but me (I always get tense in tranquil environments because I realise how much less tranquil than everyone else I'm feeling).

The Professor, though, sat there with such a serene expression on her face that I suspect the staff thought she was meditating (the cafe is associated with a meditation centre) and it was several minutes before we realised that this is not the kind of place where a teenager called Lucy comes over to ask if "you guys are ready to order". As in most cafes, you choose at the counter and find a seat.

And what a choice: the extensive menu, which has vegan, egg-free, gluten-free and onion-and-garlic-free options is pretty tempting and it would take quite a few visits to sample a cross-section of what's on offer.

We shared a bowl of so-called African beans - kidney beans in a mild coconut and tomato sauce - a plate of nachos, and the evening's house special: soft polenta with grilled Mediterranean-style vegetables. The staff, graciously but unnecessarily apologetic that we had waited so long in vain for table service, pressed on us an extra square of surrealistically rich chocolate brownie to take home.

None of this will win gourmet awards any time soon, but it's inexpensive, imaginative, tasty food made with love and bursting with flavour. There are plenty of non-vegetarian places around town that don't merit that description.

The bill

Cost: $51 for two
Ambience: Tranquil
Vegetarians: Will be impressed
Watch out for: In-house video
Bottom line: Homely, tasty and good value

- Herald on Sunday

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