Friday, 7 October 2016

Singapore 2015; Tokyo 2015

I'm not good at taking holidays. It's not something that really happened as I was growing up and I find it very hard to spend what seems like a lot of money on something so transient. On the other hand, I realise that normal people get pleasure from going to different places, and I also have enough things to sort-of justify spending on experiences.

Last year was the conclusion of my second go at university. Though I didn't really feel like celebrating, objectively it was a good excuse. My best friend lives in Singapore, and I'd been curious about going, and I'd long wanted to go to Japan ever since flying UK/AU on JAL and adoring the neatness, efficiency and aesthetics. So, Singapore and Tokyo it was.

I was warned that it might be difficult being vegan in Singapore. There are places listed on Happy Cow, and more diligent bloggers than I had found out good places to go. But I also wanted to experience Singaporean Singapore. Which meant Hawker food. Which meant potentially having to countenance a bit of egg.

Actually, I ended up doing reasonably well. My darling friend R negotiated this for my first breakfast:

I'd started eating before I took a picture. Rice, vegetables, fried peanuts; soft, fresh tofu on the side. 

Also eaten: multiple stir fries with vegetables and tofu, with preferred Hawker food being at Newton Food Centre; century eggs (not that bad!); sugarcane juice ("it's not that sweet" - yes, yes it is); lots of cheap coffee that was hardly Melbourne standard but no worse than that in most of the UK; durian (I wouldn't say addictive, but not at all repulsive. More amusing was having to go to the red light district to find it); vegan CKT; fried radish/carrot cake (which I had massive cravings for on my return and managed to find freshly-made stuff at Tokyo Hometown in the CBD); lots of fruit; vegan yum cha; vegan Hainanese chicken (which omnivore R said was actually pretty good); mad desserts with jelly and nuts and shaved ice and all sorts of textural variety; kaya toast; plus some beautiful home-cooked food. 

My biggest hugest regret was not trying Mr Bean non-dairy soya ice-cream (the normal soft serve has milk as well). I am a complete idiot for missing out on this.  (Note, I subsequently saw the Shibuya branch as well when in Tokyo, but I think I'd already had my ice-cream quotient for the day.)

So, Singapore is fine for veg*ns; it would be reasonably easy to be strictly vegan there. It helps to have someone who speaks Mandarin and Hokkien if you want to do Hawker food. Otherwise Happy Cow lists a plethora of options. 

(As for Singapore itself, I liked it a lot. I made R show me the Singapore of Singaporeans, i.e. all the residential areas and where she grew up. The botanic gardens are fantastic, and Gardens by the Bay was pretty too. It's just a bit hot...)


But of course.
I flew JAL from Singapore to Tokyo, and - I wish I'd photographed this - had a spectacular vegan airline meal. I can't remember much, other than it was everything one would dream of. 

I had a bit of a sketchy time, food-wise in Tokyo. I did well on my first evening, meeting up with friends from Melbourne and having dinner at Ain Soph in Shinjuku (where I was staying, though I was at the other end). I can't remember what I had, only that it was evening menu stuff and maybe not as exciting as all this talk on the internet of pancakes etc. My friend (vegetarian-turned-omni; TRAITOR) had the fried veggie meat, which wasn't bad.

Handily, I had a decent-sized supermarket about 100m from my hotel, where I could get tofu and vegetables to turn into dinner on all the other days when I had otherwise eaten in a fashion NOT appropriate for an adult. (Ice cream/ cakes for lunch!! Sure!!!)

I had aborted attempts to get to Pure Cafe in Aoyama and a few other places, partly because I didn't feel confident in ordering and partly because I wasn't sure I could manage the set menus that many places offered. This is the big down-side to solo travelling - your food options are limited by stomach capacity and the lack of a companion who will order something different/act as waste disposal unit. 

The weather was milder than expected, but there was one horrible wet day where I walked too far, had a ludicrous breakfast of tofu ice-cream, got soaked going through Harajuku, and by the time I got back to Shinjuku I was fed up and wanted something hot and carby. Behold, the MOS burger.  (I've since found out that the veganness of this is in question but I don't care.) 

The "bun" is griddled rice, and it's stuffed with delicious savoury vegetables. It was hot, filling and cheap. Perfect. 

I had two separate days of traipsing around Ginza, for shopping and people-watching. The first day I had a very hopeless attempt to find T's Tan Tan at Tokyo train station. Ended up having another excellent lunch of vending machine ice-cream (seriously, Japanese ice-cream is excellent and worth the guilt). On my second attempt, I ascertained that you have to actually enter the station - past the ticket barriers - to find ramen heaven:

I'd say this was actually worth it. Relievingly, everyone else around me was hoovering up their ramen rather indelicately, so for the first time in Japan I didn't feel totally gauche. 

On one of my last days I was a bit more organised and bought a bento from the supermarket near my hotel, which I think was merely vegetarian rather than vegan, but honestly just trying to find things without added fish is enough of a challenge. I can't remember how much this cost - not a lot - and I ate it in Ueno Park. It was excellent. 

 Other things:
Heirloom carrot from the supermarket.

ludicrously expensive apple in packaging

ludicrously apple partially unwrapped; disappointingly, the very expensive apples weren't noticeably better than the already-excellent ordinary ones from the supermarket. 
 Not pictured - multiple mochi that I ate.

not eaten, but seen at the airport with horror. It's a kit-kat you put in a toaster, a la PopTarts. Mm, diabeeeetus 
Bit of a vegan fail on my part in Tokyo, what with the cakes and ice-cream and all, but again it's actually possible especially with HappyCow help. I found the department store food halls amazing, and the supermarket near my hotel invaluable. I didn't rely so much on the 7-11s and Lawsons etc but they were handy for drinks and vegan jelly, amongst other things. 

After I got back from Tokyo I went through a period of a) detesting anything carbohydrate-y or sweet; b) loathing coffee. After a few months of working as a very-junior doctor, both of these  reversed. To the detriment of my skin, I think. 

Anyway, I long to go back to Japan, and do the vegan thing properly. Going to Kyoto is a must. It would also be nice to go again now that I have an income, because holidaying in the limbo period between university and work is a bloody nightmare - all the time to go places, no money to do it. Gahhhh. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Transformer x 3

Spanning November and December, surprisingly I managed to go to Transformer no less than three times. My one experience of the Vegie Bar was a little underwhelming, probably because of bad ordering on my part (necessitated by eliminating all the more interesting dishes that wouldn’t be appropriate for takeaway), but I was hopeful that the spectacular experience of the management plus a more sophisticated menu would spell excellent food.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Visit one was for brunch with my mother. I can’t remember what she had, except it wasn’t vegan and so probably had eggs, but I had the savoury crumpets. I don’t think these were particularly crumpety - more like a hotcake - but they were superbly hearty. Topped with herbs, coconut yogurt, sweetcorn, heirloom tomatoes, avocado and some welcome crunch from red quinoa, these were so good that even the portion size didn’t defeat my enthusiasm.

Visit two (no photos) came on graduation day, accompanied by my mother, and aunt and uncle who had graciously come down from Sydney to share in the festivities. Slightly incongruously, we drank a bottle of Perrier Jouet 1996 vintage champagne, which had been saved up for 15 years, intended for various celebrations that turned out to be anticlimactic when they came. This time there was real cause for opening the bottle.

I had agonised slightly about where we would go for dinner, since I am the only vegan and was outnumbered by voracious omnivores. Fortunately the Transformer dinner menu is so good that we were all satisfied. Indeed, there were exclamations all round for some of the dishes.

From memory, we had:
  • organic popcorn (wicked)
  • padron peppers
  • roasted sweet potato, togarishi, coconut yogurt (we all agreed, this was exceptional)
  • heirloom carrots (goat’s curd on the side)
  • grilled king oyster mushrooms (consensus - even better than the sweet potato)
Visit three (again no photos) was a bigger family gathering with members from intra- and interstate, and international; diners were a mix of vegan (me), vegetarian, pescetarian and omnivore, with assorted food allergies. We went for the feed me option, and though I feel that as the GF vegan I had a slightly less sumptuous selection of dishes, everyone was very impressed with the food. Again, those sweet potatoes and the mushrooms were uniformly regarded as splendid.

So in summary. Transformer: a place you can take sophisticated omnivore guests for an excellent meal without any need to apologise for the food being vegetarian.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Cash for Comment

Fairfax, what has become of you? Granted I have been complaining about standards since 1997, and the partnership with HuffPo has resulted in a homepage wiggling with clickbait, so maybe I am expecting too much. Now the Good Food section is running advertorials. Even more irritating is that you have to get to the bottom of a rather long article to find this out.

Trying to compete with the monetised end of food blogging doesn't impress.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

February - The Glass Den

On Saturdays when lassitude and embarrassment don’t completely overcome me, I go to adult beginners’ ballet classes. Or at least, I did so intermittently last year before taking a few months off. The classes, slightly mortifyingly, don’t seem to be attended by beginners as I see them, rather, women who have done quite a bit of ballet in their past and are now keeping it up in adulthood. Whereas I have not danced, and am very much proving that not only can you not teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t teach grace to a person who has had a lifetime of clumsiness programmed into their cerebellum.

There are also two consequences of ballet that I didn’t really anticipate. One, is that it is mentally very taxing. I have a hard enough time getting my feet in the right place, let alone arms, posture, head, core, and trying to look graceful. The first class left me as drained as when I sat the GAMSAT. The other consequence is physical - I am not really aware of getting a work out, per se, when doing the class but the following day I am acutely conscious of muscles I didn’t really know I had.

This being the case, I feel that brunching is a very reasonable way of following a class. Since the school has moved from Brunswick to purpose-build studios in Coburg, this gave me an excuse to try out The Glass Den, a cafe in the old Pentridge Prison redevelopment that apparently caters well for those with awkward dietary requirements.

The cafe occupies one of the old bluestone gatehouses, renovated and with a pleasant covered area out the back which would, I imagine, be rather nice in the evening. The menu offered various temptations, including black sticky rice pudding, and some rather spectacular-sounding vegan, gluten-free pancakes. Were I not still persistently “off” sweet food, I would’ve been very tempted by the latter, as it’s unusual to get pancakes that are vegan and gluten free.

I prevaricated over the menu, seeing elements of different dishes that interested me but accompanied by others that were less interesting. I asked if I could build something out of the “sides” selection, only to be told that sides had to be ordered with the eggs-and-toast option.

Why so prescriptive? One, I was going to have several sides, equivalent in cost (to me) to one of their complete menu items. Two, it is, in fact, my lunch and if I am to eat it perhaps it should be at least slightly to my liking? Three, isn’t the whole point of the hospitality/customer service industry to serve the customer?

In general, I found the staff disengaged at best. I realise that working in a cafe might not appeal to everyone, but at least pretend that you don’t loathe or resent the customers. I repeatedly had to walk over and get more water for the table because no one was keeping an eye on this. It’s not as though the cafe was very busy.

I was semi-prepared to order the avocado dish but was quickly advised that it was now $20, on account of avocados having gone up in price. (Note, I don’t see why said cost of fruit should be equivalent to $4; and while I’m at it, paying for avocado at a cafe is a massive rip-off given the total lack of preparation and labour required to slice it and put it on a plate. This is why I usually don’t order the avocado thing.)

I turned to plan B. The confit pumpkin with beetroot relish toasted sandwich. It looked a bit small and sad, and the bread was absolutely not toasted enough (the beetroot made it unpalatably soggy - a huge crime against sandwiches) but it was pleasant. I did have the feeling that it was missing something from the filling, though, and the rocket didn’t add much. 

The plate was excellent, though.

My mother had the brioche bun burger thing, which was more like a large steak, with some spectacular piping hot chips. One of the disappointing thing with chips is that they are often rather tepid and lacking in bite, so she was impressed with these.

It was too late in the afternoon for me to risk coffee, so we paid and left.

The Glass Den should have a lot going for it, particularly with all the vegan and gluten free options, but I felt a bit let down today.

ETA: Since drafting this I have seen Johanna’s extensive review, including her account of having ordered the same vegetable sandwich that I had. I was pretty miffed to see that mine was a sad and diminished version. I don’t think this was just because I had asked for gluten-free bread.

Incidentally, cafes of Melbourne, if you are going to put a significant mark-up on GF bread at least make it decent. There are good options out there. Moreover, not substantially more expensive than a decent gluten bread - certainly not enough to justify the additional dollars. How I miss the Mule cafe in Brunswick that charged $4.50 (the normal rate!) for a very generous helping of Black Ruby's seeded toast.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

January brunching - Smith & Daughters

What better way to see in the New Year than to meet up with friends for brunch at Smith & Daughters. It had been over a year since my first and last visit, and a slightly tweaked menu had been introduced.

I was unsurprisingly flummoxed by the tyranny of choice, which is probably the only down-side of eating at a vegan restaurant. This necessitates a certain amount of strategy - one, don’t order what other people are having if they will let you have a bite; two, don’t order what you could probably do yourself at home; three, maybe try something you wouldn’t normally eat. Sometimes these conflict with internal drives, like cravings or health considerations.

I have a long-standing desire to try the mushrooms, but thought it was a bit wintery for a bright, sunny day, and ended up opting for the corn-jalapeƱo hotcakes and coconut bacon, with the maple butter on the side. I thought this might be a sweet-salty-savoury combination but - to me at least - it was just very, very sweet. I tried a variety of the hot sauces on the table (none of which were hot enough for me - ! - though I appreciated the opportunity to try the Diemen's sauce I was considering buying) to no avail. 

The pancakes were enormous and in triplicate, largely very good (emphasis on large) but with a slight cornflour-y/baking powdery aftertaste which seems common with vegan GF pancakes. The maple butter was pretty excellent, but I’m glad I had it on the side. As for the coconut bacon, maybe I was just so overwhelmed but I couldn’t really detect anything smoky about it and it went pretty soggy with all the syrup. Nor could I discern the jalapenos, but then I am virtually desensitised to all but the most ludicrous of Scoville ratings.

I had to get one of my dining companions to eat the third pancake as I could not find room. It was an achievement to manage two, but I couldn’t bear to see the third go to waste.

For those who love pancakes, I’d certainly recommend these. For me it was probably a case of bad ordering, and I should’ve known better. Next time, and there will be a next time, those mushrooms!

I must also make sure I get myself to the Deli soon