Enroute to our sans-meat dinner-review-date with NZ Herald food critic extraordinaire Jesse Mulligan, we found ourselves pondering, when did ‘vegetarian’ become ‘plant-based’? Google tells us the rebranding came around mid-2017 and somehow, in 2020, ‘vegetarian’ has started to sound more than a touch 90s. (Ironic that a term that feels so 90s seems out of fashion when every clothing store in town is recycling rather questionable 90s trends…) Auckland’s latest plant-based eatery is Symonds St’s Forest, adding to the growing number of progressive eateries in the uptown area (Sid at The French Cafe, Kazuya and Lillius are also within a stone’s throw).
Forest is a small eatery, boasting just seven tables and a daily set menu of three courses ($55) and two sides ($8 apiece). Plant-based isn’t a term that puts us off in the slightest, in fact, we often feel that a restaurant’s vegetarian courses are the best on the menu (Pasture‘s flame-grilled beef gets an exception, however). There are also four cocktails on the menu at a very reasonable-by-Auckland-standards $12-$14, following Forest’s earthy theme with ingredients that include broadbean, feijoa leaf, cherry blossom and marjoram – and they’re not half bad.
Our handwritten menu commences with a salad starter of Lettuce, avocado, mint, burnt tomato and fermented celery, and as it seems dishes aren’t explained upon delivery to our table, we keep said menu close at hand to decode each dish. The salad consists of two lettuce leaf tacos of sorts; it’s not particularly complex, but it’s tasty and feels oh-so-healthy. We may have already caught a good dose of plant-based smugness, and it’s only course number one.
Our main revolves around a base of well-cooked potato gnocchi in a shiso and blue cheese sauce that doesn’t overpower, with a good amount of bitterness contributed by what is billed simply as greens and lemon. A topping of fried stalks makes the dish – you’d be forgiven for thinking the dish was topped with bacon crumble. Who knew fried stalks tasted so good?
We opt to add the two sides on offer on the daily menu, the standout being a moreish plate of battered green beans with seaweed mayo and slivers of dill pickle. The plateful was swiftly demolished and another round considered – we’d take these over fries any day.
The second side of Cucumber, apple, shallots, smoked yoghurt, breadcrumbs and chili oil would be right at home in a natural wine bar in Oslo – definitely the most ‘hipster’ dish on the menu. It’s smoky, tangy, sour and acidic and unusually, we like it.
Our dessert of Banana bread, rosemary butter, plum jam and hazelnuts is on the heavy side, the thick slab drowning in a puddle of melting rosemary butter. There’s a lot going on and we find it to be a touch too sweet and rich for our tastes, but we’re the first to admit we don’t have much of a sweet tooth.
Our overall impression of Forest? Think ‘vegetarian friends invited you over for a dinner party’. The cosy surroundings with their mismatched glassware and scented candles (we’d prefer they be unscented though) are as homely as the food. It’s hearty cuisine to the point where you won’t notice the meat is missing, almost as if they’ve purposely tried to dispell the outdated notion that plant-based equals rabbit food. It feels a touch more pop-up dinner than restaurant at this stage (funnily enough, we later found out that Forest did indeed start life as a pop-up), the dishes more focussed on utilising what’s local and available than on complexity. It’s not an easy road to take, that’s for sure – plant-based cuisine and a set daily three-course menu is going to somewhat limit your clientele to the more adventurous (and not too fussy) diner. We do, however, applaud their ethos of using hyper-local ingredients and working to eliminate food waste from the dining equation.
Is it a good safe choice for those who are looking for plant-based options? Absolutely. Will it captivate experienced diners? Possibly not quite yet, but we’re looking forward to seeing how this Forest grows.
Do you seek out plant-based options when you dine out? Let us know…