In Heston at Home, Heston Blumenthal says 'meat is one of the most exciting ingredients to cook, because it's a real technical challenge, but when you get it right the results can be sublime'. As a cook, I strongly agree; there is something really satisfying about cooking chicken breast that isn't dry, or a sous vide salmon that is perfect medium rare from top to bottom. I enjoy a meal with good protein content and the challenge of cooking it right, however I'd contend an even greater challenge is to make a vegetarian multi-course meal that is so good that an omnivore won't miss the fact that the protein content is either absent or limited to non-meat sources.
Of course having a preference for pesto (its the king of pasta sauces) and cooking from Ottolenghi's cookbooks has meant I've had many wonderful vegetarian meals. But a vegetarian degustation? That's something else. And it's not just my perception - when you look at a list of 'best vegetarian restaurants in Perth' or 'best vegan-friendly restaurants', there is a distinct lack of fine dining degustation options that immediately pop up alongside the stereotypical hippie cafes, and if they do they charge the same as their omnivore degustations that features waygu and expensive seafood items. There is often a misconception that all vegetarians and vegans mustn't like food due to their dietary restrictions, but that's simply not true - I have many friends who have made moral decisions against meat eating who are undeniably passionate foodies. Surely fine dining restaurants can do better than the token mushroom risotto and, unless its heavy on the truffles or other particularly expensive ingredients, offer a vegetarian degustation for a lower price?
Kiren and Kelli Mainwaring's Co-op Dining is not strictly a vegetarian restaurant, however due to their strong seasonal/regional farm-to-table and foraging ethos the restaurant's dishes feature a plethora of quality locally sourced vegetables, and their regular 5 or 10 course degustations feature inventive vegetarian courses. There is good news for those who have a strictly vegetarian diet - every Tuesday Co-op Dining offer an experimental 5-course vegetarian degustation menu using 'Tuesday's fresh from the farm produce' for a very reasonable $69, cheaper than the usual $95 asking price for the degustation with meat. They are also happy to tailor your meal to you dietary requirements should you require gluten free or vegan.
Keeping with the sustainable theme, Alissa and I decided to use public transport and our bikes to get to the restaurant's location in the fine dining mecca that is East Perth. We were greeted by our very friendly waiter and sommelier, Eric and David respectively, and ushered to our very comfortable booth table in the corner. The unstuffy and comfortable atmosphere was very welcoming, complete with a very modern soundtrack of hip-hop, reggae and soul playing in the background.
We were struck by David's sheer passion for wine, and after discovering we were Pinot drinkers suggested a lovely Monomeith Estate Pinot Noir by Lucy Margaux Vineywards to accompany our meal. This was a lovely wine, with all the wonderful cherry and raspberry notes I expect in a good example of this varietal.
The obligatory bread was brought out, with a choice between a white roll and the seed bread Alissa and I decided to go with. The bread was a good seeded multigrain but nothing overly special.
What elevated the bread to a memorable dish was the mushroom butter. On the table it looked like mustard, and it was only after we'd already spread it on that Eric explained what it was. Mixed with what I'm guessing is porcini powder, this butter had a wonderful unexpected umami kick. Co-op were off to a good start.
The first course was a fairly simple dish of watermelon topped with a ginger granita. This dish was all clean, fresh summer flavours; the sweetness of the watermelon and the contrast of ginger zing in the refreshingly cold form of a granita worked to cleanse or palates and cool us down after the uncomfortable heat of a hot Perth day. It made me almost wish I had gone for the wine pairing, as a nice dry riesling or similar would have been a great accompaniment.
I'm not a fan of celery, so when our next dish was brought out I was a bit worried that I hadn't mentioned this to the staff. This second course was a salad of shredded fennel & celery, radish, avocado puree, tomato powder and ingredient I recognised and have long wanted to try - samphire. One taste of the salad, and all my fears of hating this course were quickly allayed. Just as I like cucumber only when finely sliced, the overpowering flavour of celery was tempered by the fine slicing and being mixed with the equally powerful (though more agreeable) flavour of fennel. With a nice tangy dressing, this was a gorgeous, crisp salad. Dipping it into the avocado puree added a lovely creaminess, and the savouriness of the tomato powder only added more interest to the dish. Radishes were again nice and crisp, but the star of the dish was the samphire. Having never eaten it before, Alissa and I didn't know what to expect however we found its pleasing saltiness and intensity of flavour to be very delicious. I saved mine for the last mouthful to end on a high. I could have easily eaten more of these.
Noting that we were enjoying the wine, David admitted that it would be nicer in a varietal specific glass. When I said we had some Riedel pinot glasses back home, David said we should bring them with us next time! Though not perfect, he found us another wider glass and decanted the Pinot for us to try, and it did indeed taste different - more open and with a stronger bouquet.
The next dish of grilled corn, capsicum and broccoli florets came served in the kind of asymmetrical white bowls I'ma sucker for.
As a bit of tableside theatre, a sweet corn puree/soup was poured over the dish in front of us by the chef.
Owing largely to the corn, this course was wonderfully sweet. Grilled corn and capsicum may seem like a fairly simple dish, but prepared here so expertly and with such quality ingredients it was exquisite. The slight char flavour and the bursting juiciness of the corn had Alissa and I both saying 'mmmm'.
Just one look at the next dish as it arrived at our table, and we knew the egg was sous vide. Eric confirmed that it was indeed sous vide egg cooked for an hour, served with fried shallots & kale, balls of scooped potato, cauliflower, courgettes, straw mushrooms, pumpkin puree, mushroom powder and the surprising incorporation of native sandalwood nuts. This was even more delicious than the previous course, with the cauliflower, courgettes and potato being cooked to a level where they were softer than raw by not soggy and overcooked - just perfect. The fried shallots and kale were addictively good and provided a lot of the flavour, as did the sweetness of the pumpkin puree. Even if the egg were not included, the nuts did the neat trick I've seen in many an Ottolenghi salad of providing protein content and beefing up the dish. This was our first time eating sandalwood nuts, and they tasted similar to hazelnuts but with a subtle sandalwood aroma about them. Very interesting. And of course the sous vide egg was perfectly cooked, with the combination of runny yolk and mushroom powder acting like an additional sauce. Alissa really liked this course, and was very tempted to lick the plate clean (for etiquette's sake, she settled on scraping the plate instead).
Alissa's favourite course of the evening was the dessert course of honey and vanilla ice cream, figs, nectarines poached with kaffir lime, pistachio crumble, and powdery clumps of fennel prepared in a manner I couldn't quite discern. This was truly top notch, easily up there with some of the best fine dining dessert courses we've had. The components all complemented each other; the ice cream had a wonderfully smooth texture and relatively neutral flavour, the poached nectarines imparted a sweet tartness made all the better by the addition of kaffir lime, the fresh figs a summery sweetness, the pistachio crumble textural interest and the fennel an aniseed kick. Just the kind of summery, fresh dessert I was hoping for.
This was the end of the five courses, however we were offered an additional cheese course if we wanted. Knowing that they make their own cheese, we decided to partake in this extra course. David suggested a Margaret River Gewürztraminer to go with the cheese. We went with a glass each however I forgot to take down its name. This was partially due to David's enthusiasm, as he brought out a complimentary tasting of Irvine MV Meslier Brut to try.
The cheese was guernsey rolled in paprika, served with sweet onions and olive. It has a similar crumbly-soft texture to goat's cheese. Neither of us has been served a cheese course in this fashion, as it's generally served as a share plate. Earlier in the evening I'd asked Alissa if this was the best vegetarian meal she'd had, and after a bit of thought said, 'no, the best would probably have been something with some cheese'.
As we were eating this course I said, 'so, you got your cheese. Best vegetarian meal?'
Alissa nodded as she ate another mouthful of the cheese. Yes, definitely.
To finish our meal, a palate cleanser of kombucha with sparkling water was served. Neither of us have had kombucha before, and we found it to be very refreshing.
The Verdict: Exceptional
Co-op Dining definitely met the challenge of vegetarian fine dining, and left both of us very impressed with the high quality of the local produce and the skill of the chef. This was the best vegetarian meal either of us have had, and this Tuesday special would be an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans looking for a special meal at a good price. Regardless of the vegetarian qualifier, this was an exceptional meal. Service was very friendly and attentive, with David giving us some excellent suggestions for a return visit such as asking for the wine to be decanted ahead of time and bringing our own glassware if we so wished. Alissa and I are by no means small eaters, so I'm not sure what some of the negative reviewers on Urbanspoon were expecting as we left feeling satisfied with the quality and quantity of food we had eaten. Co-op left us very impressed, and we will definitely be back for their full 10 course degustation in the near future.