The decision to go meat free has been gaining momentum the last few years, but when restaurateur Laki Papadopoulos opened the doors to Brunswick Street’s Vegie Bar some 20 years ago, it wasn’t so easy to find menus catering specifically to vegetarian and vegan diets.

“The food scene has changed dramatically,” Papadopoulos observes.
“Now there are so many cafes, restaurants, take-away juice and smoothie bars, bloggers, magazines and websites focusing on health and well-being,” he says, which he believes coincides with the growing body of evidence suggesting a plant-based diet to be the healthier approach to life.

Born and raised in Melbourne’s west, though he is not strictly vegetarian, he does endeavour to follow a healthy plant-based diet most of the time – an influence which he has come to attribute to his Greek upbringing.

“My parents (born in Thessaloniki) and grandparents grew and ate organic wholefoods, living off the land and producing beautiful rustic food,” Papadopoulos recalls.
“This was not so much through choice, as it is nowadays, but rather through necessity. Those produce-driven meals for me really were very inspirational, seasonal, fresh, tasty and chemical-free food.”
Though the family still ate meat, it wasn’t a staple with every meal, with the bulk of the diet reminiscent of the peasant diet his parents grew up eating, with meat usually “only prepared on special and festive occasions”.

Rather, he recalls eating stews, spanakopita, braised green beans, fresh salads, pickles and stone fruit.

While most households will have at least one vegetarian meal a week, going vegan is often seen to be more of a challenge.

But for the restaurateur, it was once again his Greek upbringing that showed him how simple a diet free of animal products could be.

“Each year we would observe the Christmas and Easter fast. This meant no animal products, so the idea of vegan food comes naturally to me in some ways from observing this fast throughout my youth. Like a good Greek boy …” he adds with a laugh.

With the vegetarian market expanding, Papadopoulos and business partner Mark Price (also co-owners of Panama Dining Room and Rice Queen) decided it was time to “take it up a notch”, birthing their most recent venture, Transformer.

While there’s no denying the cult following the Vegie Bar has garnered over the years, the pair say they were looking to further “transform people’s opinions about vegetarian dining”.

“We wanted to bring beautiful simple produce together with interesting techniques and create a new experience. We have always been interested in raw, vegan and vegetarian food, and the challenge with Transformer was to present fine dining food in a relaxed and architecturally- designed atmosphere.”

And they appear to have hit the nail on the head, filling a gap in the market, evidenced by an overwhelmingly positive response.
“We have die-hard vegans, vegetarians, and wholefood lovers sitting next to AFL players, people trying vegetarian for the first time, and hard-core carnivores. They all love the offering.”

So what’s the trick to a satisfying vegetarian meal? How does one ensure carnivores don’t leave the table feeling unsatisfied when the meat component is missing?

According to Papadopoulos it’s all about paying careful attention to preparing “well-balanced meals”.

That, and a little bit of enthusiasm and research of course.

“It’s about having a passion for what we are doing and applying a great amount of creativity towards the food we present.”

Ricotta and rye gnocchi with pumpkin mousse, blueberry compote and organic sprouted lentils

250g wild blueberries
honey to taste
240g roasted butternut pumpkin (about 450g uncooked)
40g crème fraiche
50g cultured butter
a pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Sprouted lentils:
a handful of organic dry lentils
(they can be a mixture; at Transformer they use Australian green, red, black beluga and mung beans)
200g salted ricotta
1kg ricotta
2 free range egg yolks
1 free range egg
50g rye flour
20g white flour
1. Heat the blueberries with a little honey until it begins to simmer, then take off the heat.
1. Cut the pumpkin into small chunks and roast at 180°C until tender (about 30min).
2. Blend the pumpkin, crème fraiche, cultured butter, pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper in a food processor.
3. Allow to cool overnight.

Sprouted lentils:
1. Soak the lentils at room temperature for 8 hours.
2. Drain the lentils, rinse well, sit in a colander over a pot and cover from light and draught.
3. For fast germination, leave the lentils at room temperature and rinse every 6-8 hours, or alternatively you can leave it in the fridge and rinse once a day. Continue the rinsing process until the lentils have a tail around 5mm long.
1. Hang the ricotta in a muslin cloth overnight.
2. In a food processor blend the ricotta, ricotta salata and egg until smooth.
3. Add the flour and pulse the processor until just combined.
4. Turn the dough out and bring it together with your hands. Gently knead the dough to bring it together if need be.
5. Roll out the gnocchi in a few batches on a well-floured bench.
6. Cut into small nuggets and place into boiling water.
7. As soon as the gnocchi begin to float remove them from the boiling water. Refresh in ice cold water.
8. Heat a pan over medium high heat with a little oil, and add the gnocchi to the pan and fry until they start to become golden.
9. Add a knob of butter and cook until the gnocchi are golden crispy on the outside and the butter has begun to brown.

Chargrilled oyster mushroom, smoked shallot, confit garlic & pine nut puree

Serves 2 as an entrée

2 heads garlic
75g pine nuts
3 king oyster mushrooms
2 large shallots
25g flaked sea salt
25g porcini powder
100ml grape seed or other neutral flavoured vegetable oil
50ml olive oil
Lemon infused extra virgin olive oil
Micro chives
Note: Smoking chips as required

Confit garlic and pine nut purée:
1. Combine olive oil and vegetable oil and heat to 90 °C.
2. Place peeled garlic cloves into oil and cook at very low temperature until soft and sweet. This should take around 2 hours. Stir occasionally.
3. Lightly toast pine nuts in the oven at 160 °C until golden brown for around 6 – 8 mins.
4. Remove garlic from oil and combine with pine nuts. Blend to a fine purée and season with salt and pepper.
5. Reserve confit garlic oil for use in dressings or for finishing pastas. Allow to cool and put into squeeze bottle for presentation.

Smoked shallots:
1. Peel shallots, cut in half and gently steam until just soft, but still with a bit of firmness.
2. Place on wire rack above deep cooking tray containing smoking chips.
3. Cover tray with foil and place over flame on cook top until it starts to smoke. Keep over heat for a further minute and then turn off, and allow smoke to infuse into the shallots.
4. Once sufficiently infused, remove shallots and cook shallots cut side down in very hot pan until dark brown or a little black.

King oyster mushrooms:
1. Cut mushrooms in half lengthways and brush with oil.
2. Grill on hot griddle or barbecue for around 6 – 8 minutes, turning after 3 – 4 minutes.
3. Add moisture by spraying with a little water from time to time.
4. Combine sea salt and porcini powder.
5. Remove mushrooms from grill and season with porcini salt.
6. Arrange mushrooms and plate with smoked shallots and dots of confit garlic and pine nut purée. Garnish with micro chives and drizzle some lemon infused extra virgin olive oil.

Pumpkin dip with sourdough crisps

1kg pumpkin cut into chunks
½ tsp ras el hanout spice
½ tsp salt
1/4 cup tahini paste
1/4 cup vegan yoghurt (i.e. coyo)
1 crushed garlic clove
A sprinkle of toasted black and white sesame seeds
A small handful of toasted pine nuts
Pomegranate molasses
Good quality extra virgin olive oil

Sourdough crisps:
Stale sourdough (i.e. sprout and seed sourdough)
Sea salt
Finely chopped thyme

1. Toss the pumpkin with the salt and ras el hanout spice in a small amount of oil and roast at 180°C for 45 – 60 minues, or until soft and slightly caramelised.
2. Cool the pumpkin and blend with the garlic, tahini and yoghurt. Adjust the seasoning to taste, and feel free to add more tahini and yoghurt if you desire.
3. With a large spoon, spread the pumpkin around the plate using a circular motion. Drizzle with olive oil and pomegranate molasses.
4. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, pine nuts and sea salt.

Sourdough crisps:
1. Slice stale sourdough as thin as possible; you can use a meat slicer, to slice it 2.5mm thick.
2. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and thyme.
3. Bake at 150°C for 10 minutes or until toasty and golden.
4. Serve with dip and enjoy!