Mount Nelson: Planet Restaurant: Amazing vegan & vegetarian food 03/09/11
"Where does a vegan go who loves food?" Planet Bar and Restaurant at the Mount Nelson.
When one of South Africa’s most iconic five-star hotels, the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, decides to add an entirely vegan menu to their restaurant offering, you can’t help feeling optimistic about the future of vegan and vegetarian cuisine.
Veganism is all the rage at the moment, what with Oprah taking on a week-long challenge and a host of celebrities like Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman touting their vegan status. The fact that the newly revamped Planet Restaurant takes veganism seriously enough to add a Vegan Journey menu, suggests that public appetites are shifting, or at the very least that awareness is growing.
(If you want to skip directly to the food on offer, go straight here.)
So why vegan? We chatted to Executive Chef Rudi to find out.
From the start, the idea to have a vegan menu wasn’t Chef Rudi’s intention. It all began when Rudi started thinking about including lighter, healthier options to the restaurant’s offering. Rudi is passionate about healthy eating and the importance of knowing exactly where your food comes from – whether it’s meat, dairy or vegetable. “I feel sorry for the general public; I have firsthand experience and personally know many of the farms where we source our produce.” For the rest of us, when we purchase our veggies at the local supermarket, we have no idea what has gone into the growing process, what chemicals are used and so on. And according to Rudi, even though something may be marketed as organic that is not always the case.
For Chef Rudi, the turning point in his approach to food came when he read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In the book, journalist Michael Pollan traces the journey of food from its origins to your plate. Through this process, he reveals some shocking truths about our food. Chef Rudi was deeply affected by Pollan’s findings and is a firm believer in making sure what you put into your body is as pure as possible.
Although not a veggie himself, Rudi feels that meat doesn’t need to form the basis of every meal. While coming up with lighter options for their menu, the ideas slowly evolved into a vegan menu. “I wanted to keep the meal as light as possible without jeopardising the taste. To me, the challenge is to keep the food natural. Spinach should taste like spinach” shares Rudi.
He is also concerned about the volume of wastage that takes place in the food industry. When coming up with the new menu, Rudi has tried to take wastage into account and many items on the menu use the same ingredients, precisely to avoid unnecessary waste.
Rather than focusing on traditional hearty vegetarian/vegan dishes like Indian food or packing meals full of tofu, cream and butter, the Vegan Journey celebrates the taste of the vegetable. The food is as simple as possible and extremely creamy, which is a phenomenal accomplishment as, aside from the chocolate banana dessert, there are no dairy or milk substitutes. The tortellini is also egg-free. That Rudi manages to create such delicious food without the “usual suspects” (i.e dishes laden with butter, cream and cheese) is a feat worth praising.
Rudi’s enthusiasm for the meals that he has created is obvious. Hearing Rudi talk about the “sweetest figs you’ll ever taste” which he brings in from his own garden and waxing lyrical about the flavours of the heirloom tomatoes and delicious beetroots, I found myself joining him in his enthusiasm and optimism.
Interestingly, Chef Rudi said that the hardest thing about the vegan menu was educating others in the kitchen and around him who simply can’t understand why anyone would be vegetarian/vegan.
“Nobody does a vegan tasting menu,” explains Rudi, “ Where does a vegan go who loves food?” The sad truth is that most vegetarians, let alone vegans often have to make do with food that is an afterthought, rather than a focus.
And what has been very surprising for Chef Rudi, is that lots of non-vegetarian guests have been ordering off the vegan menu, probably because the items are so unique.
“It’s far easier to add dairy than to take it out” says Rudi on the decision to go vegan rather than vegetarian. And on that note, most of the items on the menu have a vegetarian option available.
We were well looked after by the very friendly and accommodating Sommelier Carl Habel who put together a wide and interesting variety of wines for the menu. His passion for good food and wine shone through, and Carl demonstrated a great understanding and knowledge.
Veggie Buntch is thrilled to announce that we made a small difference through our review. A few days before our meal, we asked whether the wine menu was also vegan. On arrival, Carl immediately addressed this as the restaurant had not considered the veganism of the wine! Realising that this was an oversight, Carl made a huge effort to address the issue. On short notice, he managed to source a small selection of vegan wines that could be paired in lieu of the original tasting menu suggestions.
As a result of our request, Planet Bar and Restaurant are looking at revising their wine menu and are in the process of creating a truly vegan wine pairing. They may also introduce a change to their main wine list by indicating on their full wine menu which wines are suitable for vegans.
It’s great to know that we can affect change, even if it is quite a small one, and spread awareness. Currently, depending on how committed you are, you can either stay with the original menu (which is very well-matched, but is not entirely vegan) or ask for a vegan alternative.
This is a “makes me feel good item” says Rudi. “I didn’t want to do a normal thing, and there are five varietals of heirloom tomatoes.” This is also one of the most commonly ordered dishes off the vegan menu. Rudi has been pleasantly surprised by how many non-vegan restaurant patrons order items off the Vegan Journey.
Sweet and sour pickled beetroot.
Featuring a variety of fresh thinly sliced beetroots,this was refreshing and flavoursome.
Spiced chickpea fritters, warm bean salad, nut and seed quinoa wiith dried fruits, baby marrow stuffed with olives. Need I say more? The fritters are quite spicy, which may not suit all palettes, although I enjoyed them a lot, while stuffed baby marrow is a real treat.
Watercress and potato tortellini. There are few things tastier than a good, home-made pasta – but unfortunately, they are seldom egg-free. Slightly chewy, but great flavour, this was a lovely egg-free tortellini.
Pea risotto. Amazingly creamy, you would be forgiven for thinking that some cream had been slipped into this one. The crunchy greens contrast very well with the risotto.
Mushrooms, mushrooms everywhere. This “meaty” main dish treats the marvellous mushroom in a variety of mouth-watering ways. I particularly liked the little mushroom samoosas and the creamed brinjal pureé.
Cashew “cheese”. Another favourite on the menu, this is an unusual but very satisfying dessert option. Cashew “cheese” is made using raw cashew nuts and has an almost ricotta or chevin texture. It is surprisingly rich.
Chocolate & banana. This decadent dessert is the only dish on the menu that makes use of a milk substitute. Using some soy milk and cacao, I could have easily squeezed in a second portion of the wonderful smooth, chocolate mousse served on the side of the chocolatey-banana wrapped in pastry.
This is definitely the best vegan/vegetarian menu that I have come across. The food is interesting, unexpected and bursting with flavour. It is highly recommended for your next special dinner date.
The menu is R380 pp excluding wine. Wines per dish vary from R30 per glass to R55.
While this is pricey for your average consumer, going to the Mount Nelson and spoiling yourself for one night is well worth it. You are not likely to come across such diverse vegan cuisine, at such a high standard anywhere else.
Monday through Sunday
18:30 – 22:30
Text by Laura Cooke
Photos by Roline Bosch & Laura Cooke