There's no such thing as a sexy vegetable, you say? Well, prepare to eat your words when you visit the newest restaurant to pop up in Waterloo's Casa Building.
With an ethical approach to produce, Paperbark puts its veggies centre stage — and they are anything but humble. They're breathtaking to look at and almost magical to eat. With a subtle nod to other cuisines here and there, the main focus is on native Australian ingredients like lemon aspen, finger limes, salt bush, wattleseed and pepperberry, some of which you might be tasting for the very first time.
The venue gives off a calming Scandinavian vibe. Grey fabric banquettes, white walls, spacious tables, lush plants, earthy dinnerware and a large paperbark tree art sculpture make it a welcoming space to sit and relax, while complimentary still or sparkling water help you appreciate the little things. Service is also smooth sailing. With friendly smiles from the chefs when you enter, to knowledgeable staff who represent the menu well. The team here know a thing or two about warm hospitality.
The menu is vague, so you're never 100 percent sure what's going to turn up in front of you. For a light starter or snack, the organic portobello mushrooms ($8) cooked over paperbark, threaded on sticks and served with macadamia cream are smoky, tender and delicious. They're unlike any other mushroom you've ever eaten, and are a dish you don't want to skip. You'll also want to order the vibrant pumpkin tostadas ($10). These bite-sized morsels are elegantly decorated with pumpkin purée, pickled carrots and thin discs of watermelon radish that rest upon crisp black sesame crackers.
For entree, the smoked leek, potato and horseradish ($18) is reminiscent of a family favourite: potato and leek soup. There's a touch of rosemary and a salty kick, and it's not actually a soup at all. The Jerusalem artichoke with savoury granola and pear ($18) smells — unexpectedly — like Malaysian mie goreng when it first hits the table. But the most intriguing dish is the deep-purple coloured hazelnut pate with roasted beetroot and salted rhubarb ($18). It resembles the suction cups on the arms of an octopus. It's dense, sweet, sour, chewy and moreish, and very filling, so don't overdo it on the entrees if this is on your must-order list.
For mains, the carrot, olive and endive ($22) is unusual at first bite despite its familiar ingredients. It's bitter from the lemon aspen, but when eaten together with the sweet carrot and mellow coconut cream, the flavours blend well. The more you eat it, the less bitter it becomes. Then there's the hearty mushroom gnocchi ($26). These potato pillows are melt-in-your-mouth, while the sauce is more of a thin gravy-like consistency — peppery, sweet and acidic all at once. And the pumpkin, which can be a bit ho-hum in your average vegan meal, is something to boast about. Uniform ribbons of thinly sliced pumpkin intertwined and layered over pumpkin pieces with macadamia cream, kale and a tangelo reduction ($26) is delicious, but has similar features to the carrot dish — so pick one or the other.
And when you need to order a drink, the wine list is all Australian and hand-picked by the chefs to complement their dishes. There are also refreshing cocktails like the rhubarb Hemingway daiquiri ($20), or the Stormy made with coconut butter, rum, lime and ginger kombucha — all of which are vegan too ($19).
You can order a la carte from Monday to Thursday (excluding Tuesday, when it's closed), but the restaurant can also do its $75 eight-course kitchen menu during the week as well as on Fridays and Saturdays. Dining here does come with a few Ts and Cs though, so read the fine print when making a reservation online.
Eating at Paperbark will definitely make you see vegetables in a new light. It will encourage you to experiment with vegetables at home, and it will absolutely become one of your new favourite places — regardless of whether you're vegan, vegetarian or a carnivore.
Images: Trent van der Jagt