Wash down the carrot pulp crackers with fermented carrot juice and get ready for three courses of plant-based whimsy at this tiny new restaurant
177 Symonds St, Eden Terrace
WE SPENT: $164 for two
WE THOUGHT: 16 - Great
Strictly speaking, it was not a vegetarian dish.
From deep within the raw nasturtium flowers, something small and black was resolutely marching to freedom.
"These days, I can't tell whether an ant is there by accident or because a chef has placed it with a pair of tweezers," said James.
There is no meat or dairy on the menu at Forest but you wouldn't know that from its website. Chef and owner Plabita Florence was raised vegetarian. For her, plant-based eating is so normal it's not a selling point. Her emphasis is sustainability. Wherever possible, the plants (and the occasional accidental ant) served at her teeny-tiny Symonds St restaurant will be locally grown.
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"I wanted to put a sustainability spin on it, rather than a vegan spin," Florence tells Canvas. "It opens it up to everyone. You can be 'eat more plants' rather than 'eat only plants'. I'm giving people examples of what you can do, and it appeals to more people that way I think."
I think she's right. I didn't tell James he wasn't going to be eating meat or dairy. And, for the first two courses at least, we didn't miss it or (and there is a difference) even notice it was missing.
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We visited Forest anonymously but I phoned Florence the next day to talk about her new venture. This issue of Canvas is about movers and idea-makers. A 27-year-old woman with a 17-seater restaurant offering a $55 vegan set menu that changes according to what's best harvested on the day? Tick.
There's a wine list but I started with a fermented carrot Fanta ($8). It was more floral than I expected. Then the kitchen sent out a snack. It was a carrot cracker. "We juice a lot of carrots," Florence explained later. "The cracker is made from the pulp - you had the whole carrot." Waste not, want more. Delicious.
The modern diner is used to degustation-style restaurants where they don't get to choose their food but most of these places are high-end and expensive. At Forest, that $55 a head buys three labour-intensive courses (plus $7 for an extra plate of whole baked courgettes). Smart move. It's an affordable risk for diners from the school of duck-three-ways. It's also well positioned for the starting wage purchasing power of a newer generation determined to tread lightly on the planet at dinner time.
The entire restaurant is almost as small as the kitchen in my first student flat. In 1989, the only peas we cooked were frozen. On special occasions, we made my flatmate's mum's kedgeree using smoked fish from a tin and I didn't know a single vegetarian. Florence was not even born the year I graduated from journalism school. How much has changed for vegetarians in the past three decades?
"As a kid, I remember eating a lot of sun-dried tomatoes," she says. "Eggplants. A LOT of Mediterranean stacks - shoot me now!"
That was a pea-shell mayo on the carrot pulp cracker. We had watched the chef patiently pod the fresh greens, ahead of the next influx of customers. I wondered why it had never occurred to me to puree the shells before now.
Our official first course was ravioli, with kūmara in the dough and stale bread in the filling. Take the juice from a jar of pickled chillis, reduce it, then blend with stale bread. The ravioli takes on the texture of gnocchi and it might be too stodgy but then you get the lemony bite of sorrel grown by the waitperson's dad and the pop of a very fresh pea. Vegetable caviar.
Florence trained as a graphic designer, not a chef, perfecting her new craft at Kokako and, more recently, a series of pop-ups at The Midnight Baker. Sometimes she makes dishes from the pictures in her head. The main course comes from an experimental lavender vinegar. ("I liked how it sounded and then when I opened the bottle, I thought, 'Summer and tomatoes.'") The result is a light and bright tart that would be too acidic without fried dandelion greens for bitterness and an artichoke puree that nicely blurs the edges. The artichoke is such a contrast, it has the effect of a buttery mash - with no butter required.
Some small complaints: there is a scented candle on our table and "fresh New Zealand pine" is an astringent assault on my olfactory senses. The kitchen is only a couple of paces away and I'd rather smell what's coming out of there. Meanwhile, I've switched from carrot fanta to "chaff" cola. It's made with coffee husks, spices and citrus. Dry and austere. I don't like it, maybe because my taste buds are trained to expect syrupy sweetness when I hear the word "cola".
Pudding is, in fact, a little challenging for me. An oat milk caramel (easy as, apparently - blend, soak, strain and then simmer the oats with caramelised sugar and it thickens to banoffee pie filling consistency) has been piled into a glass with chunks of dry sponge and blackberries. The waitperson calls it a trifle but I call it a dessert that would be vastly improved with whipped cream.
"I never set out to have a vegan place," says Florence. "It appeals to me more if I think of it as an experiment. I can only cook with plants. It's about making something delicious out of plants."
My plant-based appetite is a work in progress. It visited Forest in late November and is excited to go back and see what it tastes like in mid-summer.