Finest Vegetarian Fare
Vegans and vegetarians have never had it this good
Bacchanalia, the sybaritic Roman festival of Bacchus, is hardly a term one associates with vegetarianism or wholesome eating. Yet the so-named restaurant—adorned with plump velvet chaises, heavy drapes and champagne-gold baubles—is becoming increasingly regarded as the go-to place for some of the finest haute vegetarian fare in town.
It is where a group who calls themselves Chicks Eat Vegan held their first meal this past June, when Bacchanalia chef Ivan Brehm dished out a special menu for the occasion, featuring dishes like an onion soup made with caramelised onion essence, tofu, rye croutons and alliums, and aged carnaroli risotto with black olive puree, French lavender and pickled lemons.
“People often have the misconception that healthy food equates to tasteless food,” says Chicks Eat Vegan co-founder Tara Melwani. “So we started the group last April to spread the word that healthy eating can be very delicious.”
The group, helmed by Melwani and co-founder Kheng Chua, holds its dinners in conjunction with the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup group, which means it’s not only the chicks who get to eat well. Men, like the Meetup’s founder George Jacob, also get in on the action. Together, the trio works with fine restaurants to create vegetarian or vegan meals for its participants several times a year.
Bacchanalia was their first stop, as Melwani knew the restaurant well. A regular patron, Melwani had been known to “come in the middle of a busy service with a special request for vegan food,” says Brehm. Despite the challenge, Brehm—who trained at Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed The Fat Duck—adds that just about everything the restaurant has cooked for Melwani has ended up on its vegetarian menu.
Brehm, whose wife is vegetarian, keenly appreciates the needs of vegetarians and makes it a point to ensure that they always have good options when they dine at his restaurant. “Vegetarians,” he observes, “have a very good palate. They can taste very nuanced flavours.” As such, the inspiration for his dishes always begins with the best ingredients. “The important thing is how good the ingredient is. To me, it’s better to eat one good carrot than a spoonful of bad caviar.”
This philosophy underscores his impressive eight-course vegan tasting menu that includes complex dishes such as a carrot consommé made from different types of the vegetable from Cameron Highlands and Europe, with Thai basil and clarified carrot stock. To ensure their quality, many of his ingredients also come from the restaurant’s garden, which was created in collaboration with the National Parks Board to revive varieties of herbs that date back up to 400 years. “We have herbs like ruta that we serve with a mandarin granita and what is known as the ‘toothache plant’, which numbs your teeth and makes food taste sour.”
For their second event last August, Melwani and Chua turned to Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of St Pierre. A vegan himself, Stroobant says he changed his diet after doctors advised him to eliminate red meat and shellfish following a medical check-up that showed he had stratospheric cholesterol levels.
“At first, it wasn’t really a choice—I had to change my diet for the sake of my health. But as I began to do more research, I decided that natural eating was the way to go for me,” he explains.
Naturally, then, Stroobant’s menu for the Vegetarian Meetup event was nothing short of spectacular. Along with his veritable army of chefs, he sent out beautiful plates of delicious things like paper-thin slivers of Jerusalem artichoke, ribbons of raw asparagus, Meyer melon and black truffle essence; crunchy rolls made of savoy cabbage leaves on a pool of pine nut consommé; and quinoa sushi tempura that tasted like toasted nuts, with pickled jelly and pineapple jam. It was a menu that utterly wowed participants who included long-time vegans, some-of-the-time vegetarians, inquisitive meat-lovers and others who were just plain curious.
“Like any menu, the vegan menu is built on flavour, texture and complexity,” explains Stroobant when asked if there is any difference between planning a vegan tasting menu and a non-vegan one. “With vegan cooking, we are really focused on the product in the sense that there is very little cooking and very simple preparations like pickling and compressing, so the quality of the produce is very important.”
This explains why Stroobant sources his ingredients from small, sustainable sources. “I spend a lot of time looking for and getting to know my producers and suppliers inside out. For example, I get my cheeses from a farmer with a small farm in Northern Tuscany. I’ve visited him and seen how he milks the cows and makes the cheeses. It takes time, but it’s worth it because that’s how you really know what you are getting,” he says.
Subhead: Rooted in plants
With vegetarianism’s roots in ancient Indian civilisation, it’s no surprise that Indian restaurants have long purveyed fine vegetarian options. None do it so well as stalwart Indian fine diner Rang Mahal, which takes its cuisine a notch up by combining Western ingredients with Indian spices to yield beguilingly complex creations such as smoky tandoori Portobello mushrooms dusted with earthy chaat masala and cheddar cheese.
The restaurant also makes it a point to offer healthier options such as an entrée of quinoa upma, the gluten-free grains gently tempered with curry leaves, mustard seeds and chopped coriander stems that lend a whisper of acerbic grassiness.
At award-winning French restaurant Jaan, the young chef Julien Royer produces fabulous vegetarian menus that change according to the season’s whims. The son of farmers from France’s Auvergne region says he grew up surrounded by organic produce, which inspired his love of cooking vegetables and fruit.
Among the star dishes in his three-to seven-course vegetarian menus are the zucchini “trumbetta”—the tender vegetable presented in various forms with silky burratina cheese, basil and a sauce made from almonds and black olives—and a divine organic chestnut ravioli filled with a runny egg yolk and served with a sweet puree of Jerusalem artichokes, black trumpet mushrooms and Perigord truffle shavings.
“Essentially, we try to find products that are in season from different countries and create dishes that are well-balanced and respectful of the product,” Royer says. “We try to retain the original taste and purity of the produce and garnish them with flowers and herbs. It has to be interesting for the diners, something that they cannot make at home, and most importantly, something that is tasty.”
Similarly, Jason Atherton’s Pollen, located in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay, offers a vegetarian tasting menu of cleanly flavoured dishes such as gorgonzola consommé with pears, port jelly, artichokes and truffle toast. These dishes often incorporate herbs from the restaurant’s garden within the Dome.
No doubt about it, as more people explore the option of vegetarianism or veganism for health, humane or environmental reasons, the options for good eating have only improved.
“In the past,” says Bacchanalia’s Brehm, “a diner who wanted a vegetarian dish at a good restaurant might have been served a salmon dish without the salmon. There would have been a gap in that dish. Now, customers are more aware that they can demand better food and chefs have more competition.”
In the battle for producing fine plant-based food, the winner is inevitably the erudite diner.