Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Good karma - Lentil As Anything

What do you think of when you hear the word “hippy”? Flower power? Communes? Vegetarianism? Lentil As Anything has all three.

Flower power comes from the brightly coloured, seemingly home-decorated secondhand chairs, each made unique with baubles, Barbie hair and the like.

So what about “communes”? Ah, it is this concept that lured me to them. In true “grass roots” spirit, there are no prices on what they serve. As explained on the back of the menu, you “pay as you feel”, according to how much you think the food (and perhaps your overall experience) is worth. It is a test of your conscience – you could pay as little as a dollar thinking you’d saved your hip pocket, but could you leave the café with your head held up high?

As for “vegetarianism”, quite simply, Lentil As Anything is a vegetarian café. I was pleased to find that they are selling more than just a quirky anti-capitalism concept. Their food is fresh and comforting - nothing ground-shaking, but extremely pleasant.

This part of Blessington Street is accommodated by nothing but food outlets, but on the weeknight that we visit, only Lentil is bustling. Excellent aura.

We are greeted by a friendly waiter who seats us down and brings us water and the menu, which presents a rather short but nonetheless wide choice. The repertoire includes dishes such as tofu burgers, fried noodles and salads, among other things. We are also told that there are a couple of specials.

Instead, I had a Moroccan hot pot, which was more like a stew. A tomato-based curry sauce covered each piece of pumpkin, potato and zucchini very nicely. I would have preferred my vegetables peeled, but they were cooked through quite well and I suppose it’s more nutritious that way. It would not be wrong to call this a curry, as the sauce is heavily spiced, though luckily not hot. The natural flavours of the vegetables are not lost, thanks to the rather large, unmarinated chunks (or perhaps a lazy kitchenhand?), meaning that in a single bite, one can taste both the piquant sauce and the fresh, untainted scent of the vegetable itself. What seemed like an inconvenience at first turned out to be a fortunate coincidence, or proof of a chef with unbeatable attention to detail. On the side of this dish, there is couscous tossed with a scattering of spring onions, a lovely piece of roti, and plain yogurt. The couscous could have used a little more de-clumping, but it didn’t bother me too much. Frankly, the roti wasn’t the most appetizing I’d seen, being a bit black and blistered, and perhaps a tad too thick, but this bit of carbs had wonderful smoky aromas, which went well with the sharp acidity of the natural yoghurt and the pungent sauce.

My vegetarian companion tried the malai kofta, potato dumplings also in a tomato sauce, with almonds scattered on top and red rice on the side. Judging by the speed in which she finished the dish, it wasn’t bad at all.

The portions are just right. Considering their philosophy, I thought that I’d better finish my plate, which I did, with no particular difficulty, and my stomach was duly satisfied.

Beverages offered include a range of teas and freshly squeezed orange juice. However, the star here is chai. Chai is an Indian drink, where black tea is combined with spices such as cumin, cardamom and cloves, which gives the drink its sweet and exotic scent. In most cafes, it is served like a caffe latte, with soy or dairy milk. The customer can then add sugar if s/he so wishes. Here, it is similarly served, and the default is soy milk. They also add a little honey to bring out the sweetness of the blended tea, so there is no need (nor offer, for that matter) for extra sugar. I’m not sure how they do it traditionally in India, but soy milk is, in my opinion, the best complement to chai. Natural sugars in dairy milk tend to compete with the unique sweetness that the spices possess. The chai at Lentil is slightly stronger than what I’ve had in other places, and this is a welcome alteration.

Lentil As Anything is not a temple to haut-cuisine. What they sell is satisfaction. Satisfaction of the stomach, taste buds, in their service and atmosphere, and of our own egos. For some reason, you leave feeling very good about yourself, like you just gave to charity, or did something for mankind. And guess what? You were nicely fed in the process too.

Lentil As Anything
41 Blessington Street
St Kilda 3182
Tel: +613 9534 5833
Open Daily noon-10pm