Thursday, February 19, 2009

A night out in Carlton, or: we visit Shakahari and I experience religious ecstasy (read: tofu caramel)

Bad vegan I am, I have never, not ever, eaten at Shakahari. This Carlton institution of 18 years claims to be one of the first to use Asian tastes and skills in cookering, well before the official 'Asian Fusion' craze.

I must admit that I had expected something more Carlton-esque foodwise - big serves of piping hot, punchy tasting, simple-but-honest food. I did not expect something more haute cuisine-ish, but for the excellent prices this food was fighting well above its weight.

I began with the signature avocado rolls, trumpety scrolls of avocado and tomato wrapped up in deep fried tempura eggplant spongey crispness (bits spongey, bits crispy). The light, Asian and very green coriander sauce was a tangy accompaniment to the hot and squashy rolls.

Buzz's entree was entirely different; soft pasta-like Agnolotti dumplings stuffed with pumpkin and corn. This was more of the Italian-style Carlton I had envisaged, and an excellent counterpart - warmer, richer - to the light and crispy avocado rolls.

My main was croquettes which appeared on the plate glistening with fresh fried-ness. In the mouth, however, they were a little disappointing; perhaps with something excellent from the supermarket and a pan of ultra-boiling oil I could have done the same.

The outstanding element on the plate was the apricot chutneysauce - more fluid than chutney, thicker than sauce - it coated in a stickily sweet contrast to the hot softness of the crispy-edged but thickly-centred croquette.

Buzz ordered the most meaty looking main, tofu and seitan kebabs with satay sauce. The skewered cubes on their own were like little basketballers - always up for the rebound. You could press one between your molars and it would spring back and push your jaws to open. A little dry (and disconcerting), they were improved by the spicy satay and well complemented by the pickled sides (although I was a little perplexed by the mini-mountain of rice).

And so to dessert. Buzz the ice-creamer chose one of the dairy desserts, but as I was confronted, as happens so rarely, with more than one vegan sweet, unable to choose I asked our waiter what the tofu caramel was, and I quote: "It's a little bit of heaven on a plate". Cliches notwithstanding, I am all in favour of God-like oral experiences, so I agreed.

And. Yes.

The tofu was silken and disintegrated into a cool meltingness in the mouth, without any of the tofu taste you would expect. It was almost flavourless, allowing its topping of a thick and sticky, almost crystallised, caramel sauce and chopped pistachios to become the flavour and texture focus of the dish. The contrast between the runny, sugary sauce and the crunchy, salty pistachios, mixed up with the dissolving tofu, was as promised Dei-riffic.

Shakahari was a great night out - nice enough to dress up but affordable enough to be followed by a movie. Friendly and unpretentious service belied the sophisticated presentation of the food, which was, although at times leaving some room for improvement, outstanding and exceptionally good value. And you have to give credit for its status as the first Melbourne veggie eatery & longevity- snaps!


Cindy said...

Oh yes, I love it! I think I order the avocado rolls just about every time we visit, but sadly have not sampled enough of their dessert menu.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha! "God-like oral experiences".
That's gold.
I've been to Shakahari a few times and always been a bit underwhelmed by the food...I end up thinking the same as you- that I probably could have cooked it at home.
Not to be a hater or anything- I'm a fan, but just not as big a fan as I'd like to be :)

steph said...

I've never been overwhelmed by the food, but I love going to Shakahari and last time we were there we had the Most Awesome Waiter Ever.

Mandee said...

Sounds like a pretty good restaurant, now I want to try some of those avocado rolls and that caramelly dessert too!