The Veg Deg

00:22, Sep 05 2012

Earlier in the year, Plus One and I got to eat "The Deg" - a seven-course degustation menu by head chef Dave Verheul at The Matterhorn. It was, you may recall, rather magnificent.

So I was happy to hear that, by way of their Wellington an a Plate menu offering, the 'Horn was doing another Deg - a vegetarian Deg. Boy oh boy - talk about going out on a limb! It seemed a pretty left field move for such a high-end restaurant to do a solely vegetarian menu - a place that sells some top quality meat and fish, swearing off some of the food that has made them famous and popular - lunacy?! Or rather, like Café Polo's Burger Wellington entry - a double beef burger, where last year they won the contest with a vegetarian offering - an expression of confidence and range?

I always think vegetarians get a raw deal (pardon the pun) when it comes to top drawer restaurant fare - that most of the time, a vegetarian dish on a menu (if there is one) is an afterthought; a concession toward the poor disabled diner. But is anyone really going to fork out $110 for a seven-course degustation menu featuring no fish or meat?

Um, yeah. It seems they will, actually - the 'Horn was rammed over the course of Wellington's festival of food - proof that there is a market for high-end vegetarian food, and that, far from being a bunch of joyless, tree-hugging, pallid, sandal-wearing dweebs, vegetarians are just not that well served in the luxury dining department, but will come out to play if the right temptation is offered. There were precious few vege offerings over the festival, so advantage Matterhorn.

I had really wanted to try the "Veg deg" (as we have been calling it) during the festival, but given that I was tied up being the "burger guy" for the duration, I had to wait till the festival was over to give it a try (and yes, I do get the irony).

So, a joint celebration of Plus One and LVH's birthdays seemed all the reason we needed to get in there the following week. And oh boy, am I glad we did.

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It begins with something whose flavours are so familiar I almost do a double take - the Woodhaven beet tartare with mustard, béarnaise, and elderberry capers; you know what? It actually bears the same flavour profile as the best of the burgers! Delicious, vinegary pickles, mustard, and the rich sweetness of the beets - a perfect opening gambit. And no bun or slab of beef in sight, thank the Lord...

From here we move to a dish that appeared in the full deg we tried earlier - the goat's curd custard, green tomatoes, pinenuts, green tomato marmalade, olive and Prana Sprouts herbs - just as good as it was in the meat deg (where it was one of my faves). It is an amazingly complex dish with sweet, salty, savoury and fresh notes in perfect balance - the goat's curd taking on an almost cheesecake-like quality alongside the crumb. Amazing.

Next - a baked potato consommé, with wild onions, mustard, thyme, black rice and Zany Zeus soured cream - a clear, delicate broth (made from roasted potato skins) poured over the other elements, giving a perfect taste profile of a baked potato, but as a delicious, clear soup! It is really a case of shocking your tastebuds into working overtime - really tasting the ingredients, rather than just eating them.

Course four is the Sprout House Jerusalem artichoke "risotto", saffron braised shallots, roast baby cos and lovage - the "risotto" made from the artichoke chopped into tiny pieces the size of rice grains. The roasted cos is sweet and nutty, the shallots delicately flavoured in wine and saffron, giving them an almost citrusy tang. The "risotto" is rich and creamy, and lightly dusted with parmesan and onion flowers - superb, and difficult to believe that such depth of flavour has been achieved without a meat-based stock.

The next course is lighter - organic bulgur wheat, pinenuts, Kingsmead feta with charred aubergine puree, winter vegetables and crisp kale. The wheat and feta are rolled up in a spinach-wrapped ball, with preserved lemon, and a perfect balance of freshness and texture - and the crispy kale tasted different again, all brittle texture and darker flavour.

A mushroom rice porridge (again, basically a risotto) follows, with crisp parsnip, Van der Put witloof, pine and wood sorrel. Here, again, we have a contrast between the deep, rich, earthy flavours of the mushrooms and the bright, citrusy sorrel, distinctive parsnip crisps and bitter witloof.

As with the full deg, there is an additional "secret" course - a palate-cleansing take on the Matterhorn's signature "Falling Water" cocktail, using a Ch'i foam, a feijoa mousse, white chocolate crumb, and minted cucumber granita - glorious, and so fresh tasting and refreshing.

And then, to finish, the much photographed, blogged, and talked about eight textures of Whittakers chocolate, Thai style. It's actually difficult to adequately describe this dish - it is such an explosion of taste and texture, with hints of chili and baby coriander leaves - ice-cream, mousse, crumb, a pineapple gel-filled dark chocolate tube... It looks beautiful, and uses a bewildering array of techniques to achieve something much greater than the sum of its parts. Quite extraordinary.

And do you know the most amazing thing about this seven- (actually eight-) course, meat-free feast? You don't feel as though you have just eaten a horse. The host of textures and tastes, lovingly prepared using meticulous, perfectly honed technique makes you feel satiated, and your senses challenged; your concept of how certain flavours ally to certain textures altered irrevocably.

This is magnificent, modern, contemporary cooking, as good as you could hope to experience anywhere in the world. It is right on point, but doesn't at all feel pretentious or contrived - in its essence, it is just smart cooking, with beautiful presentation and impeccable flavours.

It felt like a real treat, a real experience - maybe even more "special" than the meat-featuring deg. To eat such fresh produce, and such unique and well-balanced flavours over the course of such a mighty playlist - magnificent.

Truly, whether you are vegetarian or just someone who enjoys great cooking, this is an experience that I can heartily recommend. Bravo, Dave, and your Matterhorn crew - this was a brave, bold play that I reckon has really set the bar.

Anyone else try the Veg Deg, or know of other examples of a vegetarian degustation? Do you think you would like to give it a go?

The Matterhorn's Vegetarian Deg is available only with a booking, and is designed for a whole table's participation. It is $110 per head, with a wine match at $55 (I didn't drink, I was driving - and the food was still this good!)

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