A couple of weeks ago, I had a message on my Facebook page from Shu, the owner and chef at Shu Restaurant. Shu Restaurant is a relatively new (three years old?) restaurant in Collingwood specialising in Sichuan fusion cuisine, and Shu wanted to invite me to a twelve course Christmas in August vegan degustation that he was organising for a group of Melbourne vegetarian food bloggers.
A vegan Sichuan fusion Christmas in August degustation. I had absolutely no idea what that entailed, but it sounded completely fascinating. I was in.
To really do this review justice, I think it is important to start by noting that I am actually a fairly terrible audience for Sichuan food. I am not good with food that is very spicy – and really, all I knew about Sichuan food was that it was very spicy indeed – and I very rarely eat Chinese food of any stamp. This is because I always disliked Chinese food whenever we ate it when I was growing up, and I have not really explored the cuisine enough to give it a fair try as an adult, mostly because the prevalence of peanuts, soy sauce and chilli has tended to discourage me. (Having said that, on both the occasions on which I have both eaten and enjoyed Chinese food as an adult, that food was vegan, so the omens were not entirely inauspicious.)
The point is that while I was really excited to be asked to this degustation, and I do really want to give new food experiences a chance, I was also a little terrified that I’d walk out with my head on fire from all the chilli.
I didn’t. The food was delicious and delicate and very, very pretty, the spice levels were varied, but had enough gentle dishes among them to keep anyone from combusting, and it was a truly new set of flavours for me. I would definitely go back.
Oh, and two more quick disclaimers / apologies before I start. First, in case I have not made this sufficiently clear, I am horribly ignorant about the flavours and ingredients used in Sichuan cuisine. So I have described everything as well as I can, but I may well have things wrong. Second, I forgot my camera when leaving the house, so the photos were all taken on my phone, and are thus not very good.
We arrived at seven, in the middle of a freezing wet Sunday evening, and were immediately ushered in to this big, warehousey looking space, with chains dangling from the ceiling and records on the walls. The room smelled like fresh ginger and lemongrass, the water and cocktail glasses were beakers, and air was warm and cozy from the heaters – an excellent start to the evening!
Shu greeted us at the door, where he and his staff were busy making up a lychee punch to warm us up for the evening. Ingredients included lychees, vodka, chilli, mint, and something that had a sort of aniseed flavour to it, which I only started tasting about halfway down the glass. It was refreshing and warming and sweet, and it had quite a kick to it – I’m a lightweight for both chilli and alchohol, so I couldn’t tell what was doing the kicking, but my tablemates were pretty sure it was the chilli.
I was really excited to see a few bloggers who I knew there, and who I haven’t seen in ages – Hayley from Ballroom Blintz; Cindy and Michael from Where’s the Beef, Johanna, the Green Gourmet Giraffe; Steph from Vegan about Town (as well as the fab Australian pop culture blog, No Award, where Hayley can also be found, most recently being wrong about lorikeets. It was so nice to catch up, and hopefully we can get together again soon.Shu came out to welcome us all again, and to explain that he does a vegan degustation every Wednesday night, but that this was a bit special because he was trying out the new season’s recipes on us. I do so like being an experimental subject, especially when the science in question is food!
Our first three courses arrived together. This was the chilled and raw course, and it consisted of a platter containing a daikon roll, a cucumber and seaweed dish, and a tofu dish.
The Daikon roll with enoki mushroom, Asian herbs and lettuce in Sichuan spicy soy sauce is apparently a Shu classic, and was definitely one of the prettiest things I’ve seen on a plate recently. I loved the little tiny mushrooms sticking their heads valiantly out above the Daikon roll. The flavours in the roll were refreshing and mild, though there was a spicy soy sauce; I liked it, but I think I liked the other two cold dishes more.
The cucumber dish had strips of soft cucumber and seaweed, something crunchy which I think must have been the soybean skin, spicy tahini and roasted pumpkin seeds. This was also mild and quite salty, probably from the soy. I liked all the crunchy bits and pieces.
The surprise favourite dish of the three was a silken tofu with beans, sprouts and pickled chilli relish. The tofu must, I think, have been house made – it was so meltingly soft, I’ve never had anything quite like it. It paired beautifully with the very feisty red chilli relish and the crunchy, beautiful soy beans. I need to find out where to get fresh soy beans, because they were great. It was also an extremely pretty dish.
(Incidentally, silken tofu is just a mean thing to do to someone who is as terrible at using chopsticks as I am! I did try to use chopsticks for most of the meal – and I seem to be less terrible at it than I was as a child – but the tofu really defeated me. I gave up and used the fork. It was worth it.)
The next three courses were called ‘Hot Dian Xin’, and wow, I loved this course. It had two of my favourite things of the whole evening. Again, the courses came out together and we had a little platter with a spring roll, a wonton and a tofu pocket. That description absolutely fails to do justice to the gloriousness of this course.
The wonton was a pan-fried shitakii and cabbage wonton with pickled chilli jam and Chinese vinegar. Vinegar was prominent in this course, and I loved that aspect of it, because vinegar is awesome. The wantons had been fried, so the wrappers were a bit crunchy and gooey and caramelised with the chilli jam on the underside, and honestly, they could have been filled with sawdust for all I cared because they were just so good. My friend T, who had come as my guest, nearly cried at how beautiful the dish was. The actual filling was not sawdust and was completely delicious, but really, for me the dish was all about the wontons interacting with the chilli jam.
My favourite dish of the evening, I think – it is hard to choose, I have to say – was the crispy spring roll, filled with sweet beetroot and wood ear mushrooms and served with this green chilli dipping sauce that manage to be sweet and sharp and refreshing and super-fiery all at once. I loved it and I wanted more.
The tofu pocket stuffed with preserved mustard green and peanuts was a miss for me. Everyone else at my end of the table loved it – and Steph raved about it – but I detest peanuts, and don’t love tofu or mustard greens enough to make up for this. Interestingly, this particular dish really reminded me of the sort of foods that made me decide I didn’t like Chinese food many years ago. It really is that peanut/soy combination that does it for me. So I suspect this was actually a very nice dish, just not something I personally enjoyed eating.
Then we started on a series of generous shared plates, beginning with two more courses – eggplant rolls and home town noodles.
I knew from the moment I looked at the menu that I’d like the eggplant rolls, because I adore eggplant. These were filled with pickled vegetables and topped with roasted cashews and greens and they were delicious – the eggplant was smokey and sweet and silky and caramelised with this stealthy punch of heat from the Sichuan pepper that got you just when you thought you were safe, and a sprinkle of crunchy cashews on top. Sichuan pepper isn’t something I’ve had a lot of, and it’s interesting – if I’m remembering it properly, it felt like it snuck up on you the way chilli does, but disappears a lot faster, so that you forget how mean and punchy it was and go back for a second roll and get another shock. Which is totally worth it.
They paired the eggplant rolls with hometown noodles, which were simple homemade noodles in a sesame sauce, and they were a revelation. Sesame is one of those flavours that I like in moderation, so I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy noodles dressed entirely with sesame seeds and I think sesame oil and perhaps a touch of soy sauce anywhere near as much as I did, but this was just fantastic. It was one of those beautiful, warming, comfort food dishes which I could just eat a whole bowlful of on a cold night, ideally with some of those wontons or spring rolls or sneaky eggplant rolls on the side. Weirdly, while there were things on the menu that I enjoyed more, that was the thing that I could see myself craving and going back for.
The next course was a crunchy coleslaw with seeds, nuts, and Sichuan pepper-infused soy sauce. This was another miss for me – everyone else commented on how lovely and spicy it was, but I couldn’t taste any spice, just soy sauce. Maybe I’m just super-sensitive to soy sauce?
The mushroom stir fry which came out next looked pretty ordinary on the menu – assorted Asian mushroom, ginger and fennel stir fry with sweet soy sauce – but it was so good. It had a really rich, deep flavour, and the crunchy fennel was a nice fresh counterpoint. We all loved that one and could have eaten it forever. Probably with noodles. I am seriously craving noodles now.
The wok-fried seasonal vegetables with whole dried chillis and Sichuan pepper came out next. These were just a nice, spicy stir-fry – not an exciting, wow dish, just a nice extra serve of flavoursome vegetables. A good choice at this point in the menu. I was not game to try the whole dried chillis. I know my limits!
The final savoury course was a crispy tofu and grilled beanshoots in preserved Pixian bean paste. We were getting pretty silly with lychee cocktails by this point at my end of the table, and started speculating about the pixies, because we think we are terribly funny like that. I adored the texture of the tofu, which I wouldn’t call crispy exactly, but which was more of that incredibly soft, lush silken tofu with a caramelised crust around it, and the bean filling had an interestingly fermented flavour that I found weirdly reminiscent of raisins. It didn’t quite work for me, flavour-wise, but I’d love to try it with a different filling. This was a bit of an odd dish on our end of the table – nobody really adored it, and we suspect it was the fault of the pixies and their beans.
By this stage, we were all getting nicely full, but we still had room for dessert, which was a raw avocado cheesecake with blackberry syrup, toasted coconut, and lychee jellies. This was beautiful – it had the silky texture and grassy aftertaste I expect from an avocado mousse, with a good citrus flavour and a nice coconut and cashew crust. The blackberry syrup was lovely, but the lychee jellies were something quite special – very fresh, and with this astonishing texture that had a sort of resistance to the outside like biting into a piece of fruit before giving in the middle. I’d love to know how these were made – it didn’t feel like a pectin or agar jelly – perhaps tapioca? Incidentally, I clearly need to revisit my anti-lychee stance, because these were delicious.
This was probably the only thing on the menu that I reckon I could make a good crack at replicating at home – to my amusement, when Hailey asked about the construction of the crust, I’d correctly guessed the ingredients, and I am fairly certain I know the cheesecake filling too – it seemed to be a relative of a certain key lime avocado mousse I’ve made once or twice. It was agreed that I must make this for the next Eurovision party…
Shu came back to ask us how we had enjoyed our evening, and we all raved at him with great enthusiasm, which he absolutely deserved. And then we waddled out of the restaurant and rolled home – while the menu was not *quite* excessive, it was certainly a lot of food, and I’m glad I had a light and early lunch.
I’d definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone who wants to try Sichuan food that is not all about the macho chilli thing but which has some really interesting combinations of flavour and texture. I noticed that in addition to catering to vegans, the chefs were also very comfortable catering for the gluten-free; avoiding nuts would be harder, I’d think, because there were a lot of nuts lurking around in the different recipes. I’m not sure about fructose, either.
All in all, Shu Restaurant is an amazing place to eat out for vegans and for people who just like interesting (and spicy!) food. I’d definitely go there again.
Thanks again, Shu, for the invite – I had a fantastic evening!
Shu Restaurant can be found at 147 Johnston St, Collingwood. Shu does a vegan degustation every Wednesday evening, and Thursday night is all you can eat dumpling night. What more encouragement do you need?