Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: Forest, A Magnet For Plant Eaters, Puts Down New Roots

By Jesse Mulligan
Forest serves vegetarian that’s seasonal and cheffy. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Vegetarian bistro

Address: 243 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden

Phone: 0210 901 3352

Drinks: Fully licensed

Reservations: Accepted

From the menu: Witloof taco $11; caramelised onion broth $13; pickled potato fritter $9; cauliflower balls $34; purple kūmara and Marmite cream $28; lettuce salad $22

Rating: 17/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an upmarket restaurant moving its whole operation across town before, but just this winter we’ve had Cassia escaping its swampy Fort Lane locale for the higher ground of SkyCity and now here’s Forest, moving from their tiny space in the Symonds St shops to a bigger and more inviting location on Dominion Rd.

Forest is one of Auckland’s most unique restaurants, serving vegetarian food at a cheffy level. How cool it must be for someone who doesn’t eat meat to pick up a menu where they can order anything they like?

Mind you, it’s not quite the sprawling menu you find at most restaurants. The ornately named chef Plabita Florence offers a short selection of snacks and three mains, encouraging parties of two to order all three. This too is unique in Auckland (the incredible Rita in Wellington is the closest I’ve seen to this system) and perhaps surprisingly has the effect of making you more, rather than less excited about the food. What would you prefer, 20 dishes prepped and ready to go each night depending on what people ask for, or three dishes that capture what was at the market that morning, what is ripe right now — dishes that immediately tell you where you are sitting and at what time of year?

The new dining room at Forest on Dominion Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens
The new dining room at Forest on Dominion Rd. Photo / Babiche Martens

The first snack of onion soup is less seasonal — onions being one of the few vegetables that can sit around for most of the year without deteriorating.

“We cook the onions all day,” says Plabita, and you could taste those hours in the small cup of deep, sweet liquid. “We drop cubes of halloumi into the soup. Have you ever done that before? You should try it this summer with a tomato soup, it’s great.”

It was great, that squeaky cheese starting to melt just a little with the heat: salty, chewable nuggets of protein to fill out the flavour profile of the soup.

Meanwhile, we were getting through our cocktails (I miss the blackboard “drink of the day” from the old Forest but it’s possible this paper menu changes often enough that it’s as temporary as a blackboard) — the gin fizz made with passionfruit skins offering a clue to how much is going on behind the scenes in that kitchen. I suspect Plabita has always been a fermenter — the best vege chefs always have ways of preserving a bumper harvest — but she wears it on her sleeve in the new restaurant, with a wall full of stuffed pickling jars creating a beautiful backdrop to the bar.

The witloof taco with pickled vegetables. Photo / Babiche Martens
The witloof taco with pickled vegetables. Photo / Babiche Martens

You should get one each of the snacks — the pickled potato fritter with rhubarb ketchup is possibly a tribute to the pickled fries and apple ketchup made famous by Al’s Place in San Francisco; the witloof taco proves that you can do fresh, raw food in the middle of August (lettuce and its cousins are in fact arguably winter crops). It comes with chilli lime mayo and pickles, with a leek nugget — soft, savoury and sweet — providing the substance of the taco.

You forget how filling vegetarian food can be. We actually struggled to finish our cauli balls, not because they weren’t delicious but because they were big and properly dense — like falafel but more interesting, glazed with an intense “sticky coffee vinegar”. On another plate was most of a kūmara, roasted until soft, fragrant with rosemary, topped with a subtle “Marmite cream” and studded with sweet green peas. The third dish, lettuce, is a great refresher — big cold leaves with a creamy jalapeno pickle juice dressing, a scattering of green herbs and salty ricotta salata cheese.

Cauliflower balls with sticky coffee vinegar. Photo / Babiche Martens
Cauliflower balls with sticky coffee vinegar. Photo / Babiche Martens

You can add sourdough and fries to your order if you need them but I don’t think you will, unless there are more than two of you. Spend that extra cash on the very inviting drinks menu — the long list of beers possibly betrays the chef’s own main beverage interests, but there are a number of very interesting wines available by the glass: a chilled red (pinot noir blended with pinot gris!) and a low-intervention wild-fermented chardonnay were two particularly excellent options I spotted.

There is an ivy plant in a pot on a shelf near the front door. The vine has already grown partly up the wall and started to make itself at home, and it will be exciting to see the confidence and reputation of this restaurant grow with the plant. One day that whole wall will be covered and I predict Forest will by then be an institution, a destination meal for the plant-eaters of New Zealand, and a reminder to us all that when you drop meat from a meal, you miss nothing.

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