What's vegetarian food? It's mock meat mixed with vegetables deep-fried to death and then drenched in a starchy, oil-laden sauce. Nope, try again.
This may still be a prevalent idea deeply embedded in the minds of many Hong Kongers, but long gone are the days when unrefined and unappetising vegetarian dishes constituted the only options for plant-based meals. Case in point, we recently visited Vanimal, a vegetarian restaurant tucked away in the quieter part of Kennedy Town. The restaurant opened with a bang in November last year, bringing with it an intriguing concept of reinventing vegetarian cuisine with creativity and diligence, combined with an audacious mission to prove that vegetarian food can be fun too. This means the food at Vanimal might not be the cleanest and healthiest – and drinking is highly encouraged too, whether it be wine, cocktails or beer. In a time and society where everything seems to be patterned to fit into a particular narrow framework, we welcome Vanimal with open arms. Well ... at least after we tasted it for ourselves and verified that they have done what they set out to achieve.
We started off the meal with their Pickle Fascination ($88), and boy were we fascinated. Plating is an art, one that Vanimal has clearly mastered with precision. The array of colours in the dish was incredibly aesthetic, matched only by the extremely cool, crunchy and delightfully sour range of vegetables that included a few rather unusual varieties like lotus root and even bitter lemon.
Next came Purify ($98), another dish that was almost too mesmerising to eat ... almost. But the flavours were a bit of a miss here. The frozen fruits (blueberries, grapes, longans and more) were fresh and sweet, and their frozen state gave them a unique texture (but watch out for the brain freeze!). They were perfect to be eaten by themselves but tasted odd when paired with the bed of mixed greens, which left us feeling ambivalent. Perhaps it would have been a better idea if the vegetables and the fruits were served separately, as a salad and a dessert respectively.
We then moved on to our two favourite items of the night, which, surprisingly, came from the yakitori section of the menu. Who knew vegetarian yakitori could be so tasty? The dried tofu with zesty miso ($32) was one of the best tofu dishes we've had. The hard tofu had an golden hue that was made from caramelised miso, and it was as amazing as it sounds. This dish was a great combination of sweet and zesty, perfected by a dash of lime juice. If you're a tofu fan, order this and we promise you won't be disappointed.
The second yakitori item was the black garlic and soft white garlic with rock salt ($48). Again, these were some of the best garlic flavours we've had, with none of that potent taste that taints your breath for the whole night. What we got instead was a subtle sweetness and a smokiness with just the right amount of garlic flavour. Ain't no vampires gonna be repelled by these seriously addictive treats!
The mixed vegetables with green curry and grilled rice cake ($128) had a very enticing colour but could've used a little more aroma. We loved the crunchy grilled rice cake, which we used to mop up the sauce, but we would have liked it better if the curry was a bit thicker and perhaps a tad spicier.
The seasonal vegetables with sautéed mixed forest ceps ($198) was the perfect testament to the fact that all it takes for a good vegetarian dish, one that rivals even some of the best meat dishes out there, are fresh vegetables, mushrooms and some butter. It's a little on the pricey side, but we thoroughly enjoyed the fresh and buttery veggies, with an array of textures in each bite we took.
We ended the meal on a sweet, indulgent note. The Chocolate 5572 ($108) consisted of 55 per cent chocolate foam, 72 per cent chocolate brownie, black pepper chocolate powdered crust and hazelnut. The terrible awareness of the dangers of sugar that came with recently watching That Sugar Film didn't stop us from devouring the decadent dessert. The airy chocolate foam formed a stark contrast to the texture of the fudgy brownie in a complementing way, and the filo pastry was a great touch.
Not to leave out their drinks, Vanimal's extensive and expertly crafted beverage menu makes for another reason to return. Both the Mad Man ($110) with tobacco-infused whisky and the Leeches' Blood ($98) with vodka and beetroot and pomegranate juices drew oohs and aahs when they arrived at the table and were simply delicious.
We loved everything about Vanimal, from their ethos, atmosphere, food, drinks and service right down to the plating. This very (very) full meal clocked in at just under $1,000 for two, which definitely veers on the expensive side. But what you get in return is amazing-quality vegetarian food that you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Worth it? Yes – just go at the beginning of the month.
G/F, Shop 1, Cadogan, 150 Belcher's Street, Kennedy Town, 2872 8880