Shop 6, 50 High St, Auckland CBD
I’M TOLD THE Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant has been quietly humming away in High St for eight years, but my hungry vegetarian mouth (and scouting vegetarian eyes) hadn’t noticed it until a kind Doctor Feelgood reader alerted us to its existence.
Like a lot of ‘cheap eats’ there’s no website and few reviews and no flashing lights outside, either, and apart from an unprepossessing sandwich board, there’s nothing to alert the pedestrian to its existence, either.
The Sunflower is hidden underneath that overpriced but rather nice Italian restaurant, Vivace (which is up on the first floor), and sandwiched between a couple of other meat-oriented Asian eating houses. It’s an unpretentious environment, but very pleasant: nice and quiet, and the lunchtime I visited with a friend, the staff were efficient and helpful, and the other patrons seemed quiet and respectful. I guess that’s what you get in a Buddhist-inspired, no alcohol restaurant.
Sunflower offers vegan versions of both Thai and Taiwan cuisine, and most of the dishes feature mock meats or tofu. As always, I’m always a bit shocked to be choosing from a selection that includes a variety of meat and fish dishes, including chicken, steak, mince, duck, pork, fish fillet, ham, meatballs, oyster, mutton kebab, pan fried oyster, and even bacon burger! Okay, so I know it’s all fake, but I don’t even like to be reminded of meat when I look at a menu, so…
We started with a shared dish of steamed dumplings and spring rolls, which were both very nice as appetisers, without being standout.
My friend ordered a noodle soup, but subsequently, neither of us can remember exactly which menu item this was. But as my friend remarked: “My dish was called something like ‘tofu, vegetables and noodles’ and was more like a Korean bibimbap in the way it was presented, with loads of raw veggies. It needed the chili oil to give it a bit of life.” Hearty, but a little bland, then, and my friend had to ask the waitress for the chili oil, although she was very happy to provide it.
I ordered the pad thai fried noodle and tofu chicken, which was… okay. Certainly, the ingredients were fresh, the size was reasonable for the price ($11), and when I started to get to the bottom of it, there was more flavour than initially presented itself. The trouble was that the tastiest bits – the chopped, fried nuts – were right at the bottom of the mound of noodles. The lemon certainly gave it a little more zing, but overall, it was a little, uh… wan of taste and a bit pale of colour.
There are 82 items on the menu, and I’m definitely going back to see whether Sunflower has signature dishes that have the ‘wow’ factor that these ones lacked. Certainly, on my first visit, the restaurant lacked the taste-punch that the sadly now-closed Thai vegan takeaway in Point Chev, Malinee, achieved superbly. I gather that, like Indian Krishna restaurants, Chinese and Thai vegan restaurants eschew the use of garlic and onions, making it much harder to get that intense flavour that those ingredients provide as a base to so many dishes, but I’ve certainly had ‘wow’ moments in such restaurants in the past, so…
Anyway, the prices are great, the food is hearty, and the ‘chicken’ was clearly a derivation of tofu, rather than something that really tried hard to mimic meat. Apart from Loving Hut in Victoria St, which does for Chinese what Sunflower does for Thai, there’s no other vegan/Asian restaurant in the CBD, and Sunflower is definitely a pleasant and convenient lunch venue for those seeking an authentically vegetarian restaurant.
We also made the mistake of ordering smoked plum tea, neither of us remembering that the ‘smoked’ flavour has strong fish/meat connotations!
What this place could do with is a menu that clearly explains the virtues of every dish/selection, or a waitress who is willing to do so, but that may be too much to ask. It’s probably easier just to make repeat visits, and slowly work your way through the menu. GARY STEEL