HK Magazine Archive

Vanimal is Not Just For Vegetarians

The new Kennedy Town eatery proves that vegetables are anything but boring.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 10:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:02pm

Vegetables have had their fair share of the spotlight in recent years: Hong Kong has adopted each new health trend faster than you can say “home-brewed kombucha”—from the coconut water craze to cold-pressed juices and mountains of kale everywhere you look. But despite the growing beanie-bearing, carrot-nibbling hipster crew (you can find them most nights seeking refuge in the organic sanctuaries of Locofama and Grassroots Pantry), most of us omnivores aren’t quite ready to pick to pick out a vegetarian restaurant just for sake of “eating healthy”. The logic simply doesn’t add up: why pay $100 for a plate of greens when you could cozy up to a big slab of meat instead?

But what if that primordial pleasure was present in chewing on meaty chunks of grilled mushrooms, or diving into a wild and robust veggie paella alive with contrasting flavors and textures? Vanimal, the newest addition to Kennedy Town’s stable of hip, concept-driven restos, aims to prove that vegetarian eating can be just that—as exciting, if not more, as diving into a rack of ribs or gnawing on a char-grilled bone-in steak.

The cooking at Vanimal is distinctly modern—there’s a sensibility to textures and plating, geometry and ratios on the plate, and even molecular-inflected preparations that hint at someone at the helm who’s gained quite a bit of experience in kitchens outside of Hong Kong. That someone is Paul Hui, co-owner and lead “gastronomist” in charge of crafting the menu alongside a team of local and internationally trained chefs.

Paul studied at culinary school in Florence before returning to Hong Kong to open Fa Zu Jie, a private kitchen in Central, six years ago. Following a meal where a customer thanked him for “the best vegetarian meal of her life,” he was inspired to create a restaurant where veggie eaters could go to enjoy a meal just as thrilling as their carnivorous counterparts, and where non-vegetarians could go to experience vegetables from an all-new point of view.

To that end, Paul ensures that the dining experience is anything but drab, from the moment you step through the warehouse-style sliding doors and see the glossy produce marked as the “day’s catch” intended to evoke the same anticipation as the fish tanks in a seafood restaurant, pass by the colorful mural of hand-crafted acrylics symbolizing the diversity of vegetables, and sit down at the communal central dining table or at one of the more intimate tables lining the windows.

The menu is short for the time being—more dishes are on the way—and reflects both Eastern and Western influences with sometimes undecipherable descriptions such as “Fried Potato Dual” and “Brie. Crunch. Green Salad.” Pick four or five dishes to share between two and dive in with an open mind.

Our meal started with the Daily Catch, a platter of local, seasonable vegetables served undressed to truly highlight the fresh taste of the produce. Two teardrop vials of chamomile-infused oil and pickle juice are served on the side along with pepper and flaky smoked sea salt. Depending which way you lean, this could either be the most bland or the most exciting dish of the night. Don’t worry just yet—the rest of the menu introduces much bolder flavors to compensate.

The menu is Asian-inspired, from the fried croquettes made with black-eyed beans on a dusting of turnip powder, to the vegetable tempura with lightly-fried lotus root, asparagus, eggplant, carrots and bell peppers meant to be dabbed on lines of green tea salt and fermented bean curd powder. The grilled French horn mushroom—sliced crosswise like a rib eye—showcases its inherent meatiness that’s enriched with a butter soy sauce, while the slow-cooked Japanese egg with cèpes and shiitakes within a ring of Jerusalem artichoke chips demonstrates the focus on contrasting textures and rhythms that seems to be Paul’s MO. For the grand finale, don’t miss the Vanimal Paella, a complete and wholly satisfying dish—without a single animal in sight.

It’s worth noting that the drinks list is about 10 times as long as the food menu, and with lip-smacking cocktails, a cozy long bar and the promise of robatayaki skewers as bar snacks in the future, Vanimal has huge potential as a destination for pre-dinner tipples and snacks. But if you miss the main event, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Recommended: Slow-cooked Japanese egg, fried potato dual, vegetable tempura, chocolate 5572
Prices: $88-128, $368 paella to share. Cocktails $100.
Open: Mon-Sun 6-11pm; closed Tuesdays.
150 Belcher’s St., Kennedy Town, 2872-8880.