Vegan! Not a word I normally have much truck with, but tonight we are off to Lentil As Anything, which I am quickly advised, even before my bum has hit the seat, is not just vegetarian, but vegan. On the upside though, the place does seem to be very popular. It’s full to the brim with mostly twentyish women and a few young men who have obviously agreed to come here, ignoring their natural red-blooded inclination to go up the hill to the Amazon Steakhouse, in the hopes of charming the socks off the women folk. The dress code suggests that the clientele are from the more hippy end of the hipster spectrum, and the strong possibility that there are a few students present.
Seated in the middle of the restaurant at a junk-shop-find table, our group of four is an island of cynical boomerism awash in an optimistic sea of idealism. And despite myself, I am finding that being splashed in the face with some salty hope and enthusiasm is quite refreshing.
Lentil As Anything in Newtown is part of a Melbourne-based chain of do-goodnik eateries, famous because guests (not customers) are invited to contribute (not pay) what they feel is appropriate. There is no bill, just a contribution box near the door on the way out, “So we don’t know what you put in it,” our charming waitress explains helpfully when we finally start to pull up stumps. The staff are mostly volunteers and the organisation is a not-for-profit which is involved in education and community development. According to the the website they believe in the power of humanity to create stupendous change, and I for one, admire anyone who uses the word stupendous on the front page of their website.
Tonight Strop and I are joined by Mindy and Pete, old mates who we have been trying to spend time with for a while so there is a lot of catch-up natter when we meet at the Social Club next door. The conversation pitter-patters through a bit of job whinging, health issue exploration, bereavement commiseration, parental enquiry, reports of children’s antics, and highlights of holidays past and holidays imminent, before our glasses are empty and we have to decide whether we need food or more alcohol more urgently. Food wins.
Next door we are directed to a table and offered water and chai. Chai! I am not a chai person, but what the hell, I decide to pretend I am in a foreign country, and adapt to the local customs. It is quite nice really. In context. The table is decorated with a bowl of fresh looking oranges. I might have one of those later, I think to myself.
Our waitress explains the offerings tonight. There are three, a noodle dish, a curry dish and a bean dish. There is no tradition of gluten-based-meat-analogues here, though there are probably a few Buddhists in the crowd. The simple choices are a refreshing change from menus that are so long that you are never going to be able to read the whole thing. Our choices are worryingly symmetrical – curry for the blokes, noodles for the womens. The food is really good. Fresh simple flavours, well-cooked and generous. I think the curry is the winner because there are four curries with the rice and salad: beetroot, eggplant, dahl and potato. It is excellent. The noodles are good too but the curry gets bonus points for variety. The vibe of the place is a bit like a very crowded 1970s group house, but with better food and more colourful hair. Just as I am about to help myself to an orange, which is what I would do at home, peeling it over my empty curry plate, the waitress asks if we’d like dessert. Well, yes. There is one dessert, a lime, coconut and raisin pudding. As I am a foreigner in this territory, my non-vegan brain added cream to the list of dessert ingredients. Unfortunately I was wrong, which is a pity because the dessert was quite dry. On the way out one of the staff explained to me that vegan baking is a tricky business. Cream. I’m sure the cow wouldn’t mind.
There is plenty of demand for places at Lentil As Anything, so they tend to squeeze as many people in as they can. We felt a bit uncomfortable lingering over our empty bowls and chai glasses, knowing there were people waiting out on the street to get in. We carried on our catching up outside before going our separate ways, but had to split up in the end as people kept thinking we were the end of the queue to get in. I can see us going back for a quick feed.
When you go be generous, the food and the optimism are well worth it.