Ah, Nourishing Quarter: Sydney's hippest vegan place, getting rave reviews in the mainstream press, feted by omni and vego bloggers alike (see link list below). We had super high hopes for it, setting aside a Tuesday evening to bus our way into town and sample its wares. We arrived at about 6:45 but had clearly underestimated its popularity - NQ was packed to the rafters.
I wandered in optimistically to suss out our chances. Cue first weird conversation of the night.
Me: "Do we have any chance of a table tonight?'
Staff member: "Ummm. We're fully booked at the moment. Did you make a booking? There's a second sitting at 8pm."
Me: "We didn't make a booking, but we'd be happy to come back at 8pm if there'd be a table then."
Staff member: "It's really better to make a booking."
Me: "So would we be able to get a table if we came back at 8?"
Staff member: "Ummm. I'm... not sure."
So we left, standing outside to figure out a new plan. As I looked up Yulli's on my phone, a full table of six came steaming out the door, muttering about the ridiculous wait for service and their inability to get anyone's attention. We ignored the substantive content of their comments and decided to try our luck at snaring their table. Success! As long as we got out before that second sitting at 8.
It's a cute place - all mismatched furniture, twee crockery and strange old paintings of the queen. Foodwise, its whole schtick is couched in the ridiculous super-food and eat-yourself-fitter nonsense that so often characterises vegetarian dining. Seriously, open this photo in a new tab and try to make sense of it:
The menu, which is billed as a Vietnamese/South American fusion, is basically a series of Vietnamese dishes including quinoa and amaranth in the ingredients list (seriously, every dish had at least one of these and most had both). There are dumplings, rice paper wraps, mini pancakes in the entrees, soups, curries, noodles and tofu in the mains. It's all vegan and gluten-free. We decided to sample as much of the menu as possible, ordering two entrees and a main.
We were reassured by speedy service - our order was taken in no time at all, and we managed to make it clear that they should bring everything out whenever it was ready and we'd share it all. First to arrive was our main: the bun rieu (tomato-based broth with shitake mushroom, creme de tofu, crispy tofu strips, shredded cabbage, served with amaranth and rice noodles, $16.50).
This was excellent - tangy and spicy, with fresh and healthy fillings and long strips of delicious crispy tofu for dunking.
Next up, our sacred khot (a popular savoury mini-tart from Vietnam, made with quinoa, amaranth and rice flour bases, topped with mung bean mix and spring onions and served with lettuce, fresh herbs and a flavoursome and fruity Nuoc Cham sauce, $16.50 for 7).
These were very reminiscent of the mini pancakes from Than Nga 9, albeit without the weird mock-meats. We liked this version, bursting with minty and spicy toppings and with a crispy base, but they probably weren't quite as good as you'd want when you're paying almost twice what you'd pay in Richmond.
As our shared plates were cleared we held onto our individual plates, explaining that we'd use them for our final dish - the much hyped three sisters, a set of rice paper wraps ($14 for three) with a variety of fillings (all of which include royal quinoa!). We waited with some anticipation.
And we waited.
And we waited.
After making puzzled eye contact a couple of times but never approaching too close, our waitress finally wandered over and gave us our bill. We enquired about our missing wraps and she looked confused and headed back to the kitchen. After another decent wait, she came back with the bill, which now had the wraps crossed out. It was almost time for the second sitting you see, and we had promised to be out by 8. So with the vaguest of apologies and a dish short we were on our way. I'd chalk it all up as bad luck if I hadn't overheard the table next to us having a very similar conversation about a noodle soup that had never arrived.
I was kind of expecting that they might throw in our pancakes for free or something, but no. We didn't really care at this stage, and just laughed our way around the corner to Yulli's to fill up on dessert (and be amazed by the comparative efficiency and slickness of the service).
I dunno, it's hard to be too grumpy about honest mistakes, but it's also hard to be that understanding if a business is getting by on whimsy and mysticism rather than, y'know, providing the service that people are paying for. We probably should have booked, and maybe we struck them on a particularly off night (there's certainly not too many complaints in the blog reviews below), but a few of our twitter friends reported very similar experiences. The food that did come out was fresh and interesting and packed with flavours. It's great that the whole menu is gluten-free and vegan, but everything is really expensive ($28 for a tofu and pumpkin curry!) and the whole experience was so chaotic that it's hard to imagine we'll ever muster the energy to go back.
I was somewhat surprised to read almost uniformly positive reviews of Nourishing Quarter from a decent number of veg and omni bloggers: urban usher, Gucci & Gyoza, Fashimi, Glutenfreewheeling, Like a Vegan, The Screaming Artichoke, Lucy in the Larder, Soul Kitchen Blog, opinioniste, Trick of Fate, Wandering Vegans, vegansydney, Fooderati, The Happiness Cocktail, beautiful food, Eternal Darkness, one hungry mami, Veg for 30 days, Does My Bomb Look Big In This?, cool sydney, Not Quite Nigella. Only 4 & Fare had any complaints, and they were food-based rather than about the service, so they mustn't struggle quite so much all the time.
315 Cleveland Street, Redfern
(02) 8399 0888
entrees $10.50-$17.50, mains $16.50-$28
Accessibility: There's a flat entryway but the interior is ridiculously crowded. Everybody bumped into each others' chairs/the door on their way in and out. There's full table service (or at least, there's no alternative to table service). We didn't visit the toilets.