It was the vegan wine that did it. Sure, the menu was a surprise, but when the waiter asked if I wanted vegan wine, I nearly fell off my seat.
I was at the Lobby Bar of The Heritage Hotel in Auckland. I'd heard through friends that the Heritage had vegan options and as a long term herbivore, I was interested to see what it had on offer. My friend Sarah was having a birthday, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a girls' night out and see what was what.
We've both been vegetarian/vegan for a few decades. Back in the 90s, when we started our vege journey, the only eating-out options were chips, pasta and salad. Vegetarian food is far more readily available now, but vegan food not so much. So it was a surprise to see a menu at The Heritage that was entirely vegan, and even more of a surprise to be offered vegan wine.
A Google search later revealed that Aucklanders are now spoiled for choice when it comes to vegetarian/vegan eating options. As more people choose to eat this way, whether for ethical, environmental or health reasons, restaurateurs are rising to the challenge of feeding them. From cheap and cheerful Asian eateries to fine-dining restaurants, there are vege-eating options for all price ranges and tastes.
Here's a selection.
Quick and tasty vege eats
Il Bucco in Ponsonby sells a range of vegetarian dishes and pizzas by the slice. These include eight vegan pizzas, some with vegan cheese and faux chorizo. Owner Jonny Rudduck says these pizzas have flown out the door since being added to the menu. "The vegan network is amazing," he says. "And our vegan customers are so grateful that we are making these pizzas."
The California Burrito Company in Commerce St, Auckland City offers a vegan burrito called The Monterey Mixed Vegetable Burrito. It has tofu sour cream, and vegan cheese can be added.
Burger Fuel's Combustion Tofu Burger was so popular that a Facebook page was set up when it was taken off the menu a few years ago. It has now been reinstated, and can be found at its Queen St, Ellerslie, Henderson, New Lynn, Takapuna, Mt Eden, Glenfield, Parnell, Ponsonby and Hamilton CBD stores. Other vege burger options include the V8 Vegan and the Beetnik, which has a vege pattie and a slice of beetroot.
The Kiwiana Fish and Chip Shop (Greenlane and Kingsland) sells battered vege sausages - great for those of us who crave the classic Kiwi battered hot dog with sauce - and a very tasty vege burger.
Hell Pizza has five vegetarian pizzas on its menu, including Sinister, a vegan pizza with a Mexican twist.
Cheap and cheerful ($10 and under)
Asian food has always been a great option for herbivores but it can be hard to tell if your so-called vegetarian dish contains animal stock or fish sauce. Luckily for vegetarians, more "pure" vegetarian
Asian options have started popping up around the place. Loving Hut (61 Victoria St, Auckland City) is a Chinese vegan restaurant with a huge selection of faux meat dishes, including sizzling steak, barbecue ribs and pork fried noodles. The concept of faux meat can fill some with horror (friends of mine find the concept disturbing), but I enjoy it occasionally.
A recent addition to Pt Chevalier's restaurant scene is Malinee Thai (224 Pt Chevalier Rd). It's a 100 per cent vegetarian takeaway, and sells all the classics - green curry, curry puffs, money bags, pad phed ped yang. The food does contain fake meat but it's pretty tasty.
Vegetarian restaurant Mumbai Chaat (71 Taylor St, Blockhouse Bay) has a range of vegetarian Indian meal options. Masala dosa, onion uthepam (also called "Indian pizza"), and thalis (a selection of different dishes) are some highlights.
Rasoi (211 Karangahape Rd) serves Gujarati-style vegetarian food, as well as a wide range of Indian sweets. It's a bit of an institution (it's been there for more than a decade) and it specialises in light, fresh curries with less sauce and cream than you'd find at a regular Indian restaurant. The interior is basic, but it's authentic and is popular with Auckland's Gujarati community.
For really cheap and cheerful, you can't go past the Hare Krishna Food for Life on K Rd. You can get a full meal here for $6 and it has a cool, studenty vibe.
Mid range ($10-$30)
New vegetarian cafes and restaurants seem to be springing up almost weekly. Fairtrade coffee producers Kokako have moved into the food business with its recently opened Grey Lynn cafe in the old Post Office building (537 Great North Rd). The food here is fresh and tasty, as is the coffee. Dishes include buckwheat pancakes with apple compote and maple syrup, potato gnocchi with mushrooms, and leek and cheddar tart.
Elliot Stables is an Auckland foodie haven and it plays host to Basilicum, a "fusion" vege restaurant with a wide range of Indian and Western style food. Mains here range from $12 to $21 and include dishes such as olive fried rice, butter paneer, both been vegetarian/vegan for a few decades, crispy tofu. It also has a range of tasty sides and soups.
Revive Salad Bar (16 Fort St and 33 Lorne St) is a popular inner-city vegetarian lunch spot. Owned by Jeremy Dixon, it has a wide range of hot and cold food available and also offers a delivery service. The menu changes weekly, but includes such delights as Thai ginger slaw, mesclun with feta, carrot and balsamic dressing and chickpea satay.
Cousins Kellie Gray and Rohan Packard have given Mt Albert a cafe to be proud of. Its location may be unprepossessing, but once inside Cosset (1087 New North Rd) it feels like you've come home. It's all vegan here (though they do serve coffee with cow's milk), and they also cater for gluten-free types as well. The food is tasty and homemade - cakes, pastries, and the much-loved Czech potato pancake. Its interior is adorned with crafts, bright cushions, vintage furniture and retro prints and it has garnered awards for its Fairtrade and organic practices.
I remember eating the delicious tofu burger from Raw Power (10 Vulcan Lane) when I was a student at Auckland University. Back then, it was one of the only vegetarian eateries in the inner city and was always packed with students and lunching office workers. Nothing much has changed since. ("The tofu burger is just as delicious," commented a Japanese friend of mine who had been away for five years.) They also have a pick-and-mix salad bar, a range of warm dishes, and some very tasty cakes.
The Blue Bird Cafe (299 Dominion Rd) is run by Sri Chinmoy devotees and has a large, healthy vegetarian menu. They sell food by the bowl and you get to choose which combo of bases (potato, kumara or brown rice) and toppings go in it. There are loads of options - Mexican beans, dhal, stroganoff, chickpea curry, peanut sauce - plus also nachos, vege burgers and other goodies.
Fine dining (over $25)
Anthony Bourdain once famously wrote "Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit". It's a sentiment that's shared by many famous foodies (Gordon Ramsey, et al), who seem to regard vegetarians as leaf-munching killjoys.
Fortunately for vegetarians, this attitude seems to be changing. Many New Zealand fine-dining chefs are making a real effort to cater for those who choose not to eat meat, creating dishes that even carnivores can relish.
Jinu Abraham is a good example of this. Although he's a meat eater, he has created a vegan menu for diners at Hectors Restaurant and the Lobby Bar at the Heritage Hotel (35 Hobson St). The food here is a far cry from the lentils and lettuce leaves often (wrongly) associated with vegan food. We're talking fine-dining - roasted field mushrooms with polenta, pickled cabbage and avocado and lime salsa; macadamia and herb roasted eggplant filo with wakame tea powder. One of Abraham's dishes this month won the inaugural New Zealand Vegetarian Dish Challenge out of more than 200 entries from chefs and caterers around the country.
Other fine-dining restaurants have also taken note of the move towards plant-based food. French Cafe chef and owner Simon Wright says there has been a noticeable uptake in demand for meat-free food. "Over the past five to seven years there has been a massive increase in vegetarian eating," he says.
The restaurant has a vegetarian set menu and a number of vegetarian dishes on its a la carte menu as well. It also caters for vegans, but "it's best if they contact us at least a day in advance of dining," says Simon.
Clooney (33 Sale St) is a perennial award-winner and restaurateur Tony Stewart says chef, Desmond Harris, has a "good appreciation of vegetarian food".
"We've had vegetarian tasting menus for just over a year," he says. "We have six-course and nine-course options and we also offer matching wines."
It also has vegetarian dishes on its a la carte menu, and this option has become more popular in recent times.
"One in 10 diners goes for the vegetarian option," he says. "There has definitely been an increase in demand for vegetarian food over the past year or so."
The most popular vege dish? "That would be the potato gnocchi with taleggio," says Tony.
Tucked away in the advertising precinct at 91 St George's Bay Rd in Parnell, Cibo has long been a favourite for discerning diners. The restaurant has a dedicated vegetarian menu (including roasted field and exotic mushrooms with polenta, and garam masala roasted kumara and aubergine) which is priced in the mid $20s.