You know Café Gray for its great views, decent cocktails and reliably-excellent cuisine from Chef Gray Kunz and his talented team. The service is always on, the interior just the right side of classy. In common with many people in the 852, it’s one of my favourite places to take guests. So it’s all a bit surprising that I’ve never reviewed it. That’s about to change, following an intriguing invitation to try a new vegan dinner menu. The vegan menu is set to be a regular fixture, with some key dishes changing, but on the strength of a frankly excellent meal they could just as well keep it exactly as it is. As only my second ever fully-vegan dinner, it was a revelation.
The young and eminently-talented Finnish chef Eric Räty is the brains behind the dishes. You’ll know the Café Gray bread and that yoghurt dip thing they do with it, but for the vegan menu they do a cauliflower purée number with a kind of dukkah and sumac. Punchy and vibrant, it came with rice cakes which were the only point on the menu where I felt there could have been any improvement.
Thereafter, dinner proved the old maxim about eating with an open mind, as a succession of first class dishes made me forget this was even a vegan menu. As a committed carnivore, albeit one married to a vegetarian, it would be easy to be cynical about vegan cuisine. But this is 2017 and there’s an awful lot to be said for a diet based on vegan principles, especially when the experience is as good as this.
A beautiful dish to start of French radishes, crisped kale and arugula in a ridiculously good dressing of citrus and soy. Light, texturally a joy, bags of flavour:
Next a tomato plate with some brilliant iterations. Sliced organic tomatoes (from China – and sensational) came with dinky little black sheets which were in fact candied kelp, a clever new take on seaweed. Nasturtiums added a pretty touch, toasted wild rice added bite, but most of all it was the little blob at the back of the photo. This was a take on kasundi, the classic Bengali relish. There was more interest and intrigue going on in that one teaspoon than you sometimes get in an entire dinner in other restaurants.
The main event was eggplant glazed with miso and served with coriander, fresh chilli. Even the tofu worked beautifully as it took on that heady cocktail of South East Asian flavours. It was the little touches, like toasted sesame or the green curls of spring onion, too. This was one of those plates you could happily eat every day of your life and not get bored.
But Räty wasn’t done, as a brilliant dessert had me perplexed at how it could be vegan. Apricot crumble, almond ice cream and salted caramel. Truly as good as any regular crumble. That would have sounded sacrilegious a few years ago.
Talking of religion, even their signature petits fours chocolates were vegan variations of the French favourite mendiants. Incidentally, little did I know the derivation of mendiants, where the nuts and dried fruits are supposed to represent the colours of robes of the four monastic orders. The raisins stand for the Augustinians, hazelnut for the Carmelites, dried figs for the Franciscans, and almonds for the Dominicans. Thanks, interweb!
The vegan menu runs $680 for 5 courses, a price which seems a steal for cooking of this invention, quality and presentation, especially so in such an elegant setting. Kudos to chefs Räty and Kunz for introducing a regular vegan tasting menu in upscale dining – and doing it with such finesse.