Vegan and plant-based food is taking the world by storm and it’s exciting to see the cuisine enter mainstream culture. One example of this is the opening of Alibi, a restaurant and bar in the beautiful Ovolo Hotel in Woolloomooloo. Alibi’s menu is designed by the US celebrity chef and pioneer Matthew Kenney who has founded several restaurants around the world and a series of raw food training courses for budding chefs.
The news of Alibi coming to Sydney has been very popular in the online vegan Australian community. In 2 weeks, every half hour, I would see the news of “Australia’s first vegan hotel” pop up on my feed. I haven’t stayed at the Ovolo Hotel in Woolloomoollo so cannot comment on its vegan credentials. However, I dined at Alibi on my 30th birthday weekend and it was the best experience I could ever ask for.
I must admit, I’m not the average diner. I’m probably more picky, precise but also more empathetic. I grew up with parents who owned restaurants and considered themselves partial food critics. We never went to a restaurant without deconstructing and analysing the food, the experience, the prices and the wait staff. When my brothers and I matured a little, my family would visit restaurants once a week to ‘taste test’ their food as ‘inspiration’. We dined at a range of restaurants including an Indigenous owned bistro in Redfern to Spanish tapas bars to the latest 2 chef hat restaurant in a suburb where parking was impossible. Although we critiqued restaurants, I know too well how difficult the hospitality industry is and many set backs you get as a restaurant owner.
We were booked in for the 7pm sitting which meant that I had alll day to get excited about it. I went with my partner Mr Rainbow who is the most casual of diners. His ideal dinner is a low-key and grungy hole in the wall where no one wears clean clothes haha. We both love food but have very different food backgrounds. When we arrived at Cowper Street Wharf, I couldn’t contain my excitement. The lights from all of the restaurants reflected off the water and there were people walking everywhere.
After some exploring (or getting lost), we found the restaurant and were quickly escorted to our table.
Within 15 minutes, the whole restaurant was full with hungry middle-aged diners. We decided to order a range of mains, desserts and cocktails, primarily food that would be new and exciting for us.
While waiting for our meals, I admired all of the detail in the restaurant. I instantly recognised the plate’s design as one of Robert Gordon‘s an Australian pottery company! Many of the props I use for my food photography are from Robert Gordon. Anyway, I guess this is only something that a food photographer/stylist would get excited about.
The waitress insisted that we order a cocktail so Mr Rainbow ordered a “Stranded” cocktail which came out on a plate of sand. The cocktail included gin, botanicals, harvested aloe vera perfumed with orange blossom sweet with perfume aromas. The drink was highly fragrant (but not like you’re drinking a bunch of flowers) and really cleared my sinuses. Sipping on the cocktail whisked me away to a delicate flower field. Mr Rainbow called it “an experience”.
My absolute favourite dish were the Steamed Buns which sandwiched smoked king oyster mushroom, cashew hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber. The mushroom was meaty and juicy and the sauce brought back fond memories of visiting Hong Kong as a child. If I could ever replicate that sauce, I would be very happy!
One of Matthew Kenney’s most popular dishes is the Heirloom Tomato and Zucchini Lasagne which had a sun dried tomato marinara, macadamia ricotta and pistachio pesto. My former cooking assistant actually undertook Matthew Kenney’s beginner raw food course where she learnt how to make the lasagne… so I may or may not know the recipe haha.
All of the flavours of the lasagne were pretty loud and clear including a tangy and smooth ricotta, a punchy marinara and herby pesto. I wouldn’t rave about this dish as much as other people did. Each of the sauces/components (ricotta, marinara and pesto) were like strong condiments and I would’ve happily eaten any of them by themselves with a bowl of crackers. I think the lasagne was missing some type of mince (maybe nut mince?) or melty cheese. It was good but not amazing.
On the other hand, we thought the pizza was absolutely amazing! It was a humble and simple dish which really appealed to Mr Rainbow! The crust was crisp and fluffy and that cashew mozzarella was MAGIC… it was to die for! It was stretchy, melty and not rubbery. But how did they do it?! I’ve tasted a lot of vegan cheeses in Australia but this has to be the best one I’ve ever tasted. In fact, this is probably the best vegan pizza I’ve ever had!
Another signature Matthew Kenney dish are the Kimchi Dumplings. The filling is nut/seed based with spicy tones reminiscent of kim-chi. The pastry shell was delicate and just melted in your mouth which allowed the filling to really shine. Mr Rainbow loved it because it is a bit ‘different’ from what he’s used to. I’m used to raw stuff but the crumbly and seedy texture didn’t do it for me. However, can we just appreciate how much effort was put into this?! The foam is infused with ginger and there is red cabbage puree. The pastry skin is dehydrated coconut puree naturally coloured with coriander juice which was so delicate and magically used to wrap a filling.
Ok, we overate so the savouries don’t end there! We also got the Polenta Verde which had a beautiful kale pesto, almond ricotta, blistered tomato and roasted fennel. The dish was like a fancy homey dish I would whip up to impress some friends. I loved the freshness of the pesto and, well, eating green polenta. The fennel really lightened up the dish.
A mistake was made with our order and we accidentally got another dish, the plant bowl which had quinoa, black lentil, butternut pumpkin, kale, avocado, romesco and a preserved lemon tahini sauce. We didn’t initially order this because it’s very similar to what I would eat at home… ok, what I would like to eat at home because I don’t have the energy to prepare things in this detail! If I was really hungry and this was the only dish I got at a cafe, I would be 110% happy. However, by now I was in a confused state of fullness from the savouries and saving room for dessert which is my favourite meal of the day.
And I was so glad that I saved some room! We ordered the Hibiscus Strawberry Cheesecake which came out with a cute candle as the waitresses realised I was celebrating my birthday. It was delicately adorned with lime curd, sorrel gel and micro greens. The base of the cake was made with pistachios and some syrup which was to die for! I was trying to deconstruct the cake for a good 10 minutes but couldn’t put my finger on all of the ingredients. The cheesecake layer was smooth, melted in my mouth and thankfully not overpowering with coconut oil or cacao butter. I loved the caramel undertones (maple or agave?) as it really lightened up the thick creaminess of the cake. As someone who makes raw vegan cakes for a living, I enjoyed the cheesecake and loved some components of it but it wasn’t ‘to die for’.
I insisted that we get the Tiramisu which came with frozen almond chantilly, aerated espresso and cacao crisps. It was a well-balanced dish as the crisp was quite sweet, the ‘ice cream’ was creamy and delicate, the chocolate was bitter and the espresso was earthy. I love how the dish used several raw food techniques which provided different textures to munch on. Thankfully it wasn’t overly sweet as we were so full at that point.
Overall, I absolutely loved dining at Alibi and I would recommend it to any vegan or non-vegan who loves experimental food.
6 Cowper Whard Roadway