‘Best Vegan Restaurant’ is a big call to live up to

Bodhi’s vegan smoked duck sliders. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

The Sentinel checks out Bodhi Restaurant Bar after its recent win in the Nourish Vegan Awards. By Elizabeth Usher.

With 1st November being World Vegan Day, Nourish: plant-based living magazine recently announced the winners of the inaugural ‘Nourish Vegan Awards’, and taking home the virtual gong for Best Vegan Restaurant was the long-established Sydney vegan institution, Bodhi Restaurant Bar.  This family owned and run brand boasts a history dating back over three decades and spanning three generations. 

I’ve personally eaten at the Cook + Phillip Park location many times over the years, from work lunches enjoying the yum cha offerings, to special events such as fundraisers, conference dinners, book launches and even my own birthday party – plus I also remember eating at one of the previous Haymarket iterations, back in the day when there were far fewer specialised vegetarian or vegan establishments available to Sydneysiders. 

Tempura spring rolls ($12.50).

These days, Bodhi is decidedly upmarket, with desserts hovering around the $20 mark and the popular Peking Duck wrap breaking over $30. Even ordering just a single non-alcoholic drink each, the dinner bill for our table of two cleared the $200 mark once a tip was included.  So, with prices like these, and a ‘Best Vegan Restaurant’ accolade, was it worth it?

Let’s start with the undeniable positives – firstly, the location! Although sometimes hard to find for the uninitiated, Bodhi offers the rare combination of central yet secluded.  There are gorgeous fairy lights adorning the surrounding trees, and it’s easy to forget you’re right in the heart of the city.  The menu offers a wide variety of flavours and textures, and of course it ticks the all-important box of being all vegan! Being early November, the business also wanted to show their anti-horse-racing stance by creating three limited-time specials – a cocktail, and two desserts – that each included a $10 donation to Horse Rescue Australia. 

Although some choices on offer, such as steamed pumpkin dumplings, are hard to serve in a hugely imaginative way, most of the dishes are plated beautifully.  And finally, our meal ended with a truly outstanding strawberry cheesecake, which we both practically swooned over. 

The daisy dinner dessert ($18) – raising funds for Horse Rescue Australia – and the dish of the night, strawberry cheesecake ($19).

Unfortunately, though, our evening was not without its disappointments.  In particular, the service was somewhat hit and miss.  For much of the night we did experience friendly and accommodating service, and for the most part the food came out promptly and seemed fresh and hot for dishes where it counted.  However, we asked some questions about the menu and the mocktails, and most of the answers were a variant of “Sorry, I don’t know.”  Sometimes an answer would be forthcoming after checking with the kitchen or bar, and other times we were left in the dark.

The lighting situation also left us almost literally in the dark as well, with candles and fairy lights offering a lovely atmosphere but little chance to properly appreciate the attention to detail on the presentation of our meal options. My dining companion even used her phone’s torch function to light our plates so I could take photos. If you’re a particularly visual diner, I would recommend booking a lunch or pre-sunset dinner rather than a late meal!

Of course, meeting Covid-safe requirements means that the dining experience is not what it used to be – reservation slots are more limited, so we were only able to book a table for 8.30pm on the Friday we attended, and the dining window for each booking was limited to 90 minutes.  This in itself didn’t bother us, but the table was not available on time and it was 8.45pm by the time we were seated. 

This wasn’t an issue for us at the start of the night, however we were not afforded the additional fifteen minutes at the other end of the evening, and it was rather disappointing to have our enjoyment of the aforementioned delicious strawberry cheesecake interrupted by someone approaching our table with a credit card machine to take payment for a meal we hadn’t even finished yet. With a mere three spoonfuls left on the plate before we would have completed our meal, it did sour the experience for us to feel rushed and disturbed, especially when we would have already completed our meal by then if we’d been seated more promptly originally.

So, it’s definitely a mixed bag for me.  I don’t regularly eat such expensive restaurants, and I do anticipate that when prices reach this level then the all-round experience, including service, ought to elevate across the board.  And perhaps my expectations were raised even higher than usual given the recent ‘Best Vegan Restaurant’ win.  

I’m always going to have a soft spot for Bodhi given the long history and so many memories from over the years, but it’s probably going to be a while before I make another booking myself.  In the meantime though I think I’ll be tempted to swing by sometime for takeaway strawberry cheesecake, to eat at my leisure across the road in Hyde Park!

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