As the silvers set down side-by-side on a finished plate, the waitress – her face adorned by the soft fairy lights behind her – gently enquires, “How do you feel?”. My mind halts as I’m taken aback from the deviation of an expected, monotone and menial, “How was everything?”
The answer; Light. Replete. Re-energised. Spearheaded by internationally-renowned vegan chef Matthew Kenney, Alibi – a casual, albeit sleek, literal hideaway inside the Ovolo Hotel in Woolloomooloo – is Sydney’s newest plant-based restaurant-cross-bar. While some may muse this healthful philosophy would be synonymous with a notion of basic taste, they couldn’t be more wrong – and non-vegans won’t even notice the absence of meat. “At Alibi, we recognise the wellness trend, customers wanting to embrace wellness and the demand for a clean lifestyle through plant-based foods,” Kenney explains. “For me, the benefits of eating plant-based and raw foods are obvious – boosting energy levels, fighting obesity and associated health risks such as heart disease or blood cholesterol.”
While there once was a time where being vegan meant plastic cheese and tofu burgers, Kenney is proof any palette can appreciate good vegan cuisine when designed by culinary genius. “Years ago a friend took me to a raw food restaurant which was the light bulb moment that drew my focus firmly to the benefits of raw and plant-based food,” he says. “The place was full of healthy, glowing people and after my meal I felt amazing. That meal set me on the path to a 100% plant-based diet and career.”
Famous for his Los Angeles venue Plant Food + Wine, the classically French-trained Kenney oversees a bevy of international restaurants (“My team and I apply classical and innovative techniques to give locally-sourced, plant-based ingredients a creative makeover. Smoking, fermentation and modernist tools all apply.”). He has also published several cookbooks and runs a raw and vegan culinary academy. When it came to consulting on an Australian venue, however, he says tailoring the menu to a Sydney-centric crowd happened organically. “I feel like the lifestyle is already here, the products are here, the quality of ingredients are incredible,” Kenney says. “Australia is the founder of avocado on toast so really there wasn’t much to change at all.”
The outcome was an eclectic mix of vegan twists on Asian and Italians classics. A freshly-stacked Heirloom Tomato and Zucchini Lasagne is a highlight along with the Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe, both served unexpectedly cold albeit crisp to the taste (and light enough to be served with a red without the post-dinner bellyache). Coconut and spinach-based Kimchi Dumplings are a must-try as is the steamed buns (with smoked king oyster mushroom, cashew hoisin and red cabbage). For Kenney though, his pick for an Alibi novice is the Spicy Udon. “It’s really rich and creamy and I love the spice element,” he explains. “Organic udon noodles are tossed in a rich cashew hoisin sauce made from cashews, tamari soy, black garlic, sesame, chilli and black pepper.” For dessert, the coconut cream pie with macadamia crust and banana is your classic banoffee re-imagined.
Alibi is fast becoming known for its comprehensive list of insty-worthy cocktails. The most impressive by far for a Boomerang-fiend is the Escobar – a Sloe Gin based smoky-salty concoction served in a glass gun with dry ice for effect. For Kenney, he prefers the Ananas as it reminds him of Sydney. “It’a combination of rum, citrus, ginger and cold-pressed pineapple juice.”
If you’ve grown tired of the usual suspects along Cowper Wharf, take a right-hand detour and head inside Ovolo. Even the biggest meat-eaters amongst us will need an Alibi just to explain to home why you keep going back. And the reason most definitely comes down to that light, yet ample, post-dinner feeling.