Hillside: Wellington's Vegetarian Vigilantes.

Vegan and vegetarian diets are getting ever more popular around New Zealand, especially in our little capital, Wellington. I’ll say it here – it’s easy to become vegan or vegetarian, and your body feels so much better for it – all it takes is a little research and some budgeting. However, I do notice that even amongst the new restaurants and cafes within wellington that do cater for vegan/vegetarianism, the older ones actually don’t – making it super hard for non-meat or fish eaters to go out and enjoy a degustation of meals that don’t lack the flavour or substance. But there is one pioneer that is out to change this awkward situation for all searching the capital for meat-free decadence, Hillside. Hillside is tucked away down the quiet end of Tinakori street, whose humble abode juxtaposes that of their complex and intriguing dishes that champion only the best veg – seasonally, of course.

Once we all squeezed our way into the dining room and were seated and comfortable, the waitress brought over a menu that was curiously vague upon reading, but we know that between lines there were going to be some very special culinary surprises. With that being said, lets dive right into this degustation.

Course 1: Snacks to start – radish & aubergine skin, hush puppies, Corn chips & miso cream, Bread & butter: The little radish & aubergine cream delivered a fresh and earthy flavour, whose depth and richness caught you off-guard due to the unassuming size of the snack. The cornmeal hush puppies were lovely and crisp on the outside, but nice and soft on the inside – which was served with a sour and sweet yoghurt & strawberry reduction. You might think the combo is weird (which it was to me as well), but after one dunk you can’t help but come back for more of those strangely complementary flavours. The corn chips were the highlight for me, delightfully crunchy and thick, but not too heavy that it masks the punchy salty flavour of the smooth miso cream. And last but not least – the bread and butter, two thick slices each of crusty goodness with a light and fluffy texture on the inside, which was faultless when chowed down with a healthy lather of the hand-made butter.

Course 2: Mint & pea tarts: Mint is my all-time favourite herb, and there is no better pairing – in my books – than the humble mint & pea. Put this delicious combo in a tart and you’ve got yourself a winner. Even though the tart crumbled at the tap of a spoon, you still managed to experience how the superbly short pastry was the perfect vehicle to carry the very aromatic flavours of the minted cream & fresh garden peas.

Course 3: Tomatoes & Olive Tapenade: This small bowl of beautifully ripe garden tomatoes and crunchy olive tapenade was just blissful to eat – even after scraping the sides of the bowl clean, I was still yearning for just one more spoonful of that salty rich tapenade. This dish played homage to this classic Italian food pairing and makes for a lovely fresh starter to any meal or degustation. This dish was also paired with a very interesting soup – which from a distance just looked like a flavoured water, however when smelt and then drank it tasted like a thick and hearty vegetable soup – but with a water like consistency! The taste bud trick was unexpected, but also humorous and definitely worthy of Heston Blumenthal’s applause.

Course 4: Sweetcorn congee: This for me was one of my favourite dishes. A lot of the time I overlook the brilliant flavours corn, and how it can transform into so many delicious variations – but this dish brought my attention front and centre on corn and just how marvellous this vegetable actually is. The congee was polenta-like in texture, but in flavour it was carried the sweet and savoury flavour that is so unique to this vegetable. Along with this sweet congee was a slice of charred cob corn, adding some much needed smokey bitterness to balance out the sweet – and then of course a few puffs of popcorn to give a little crunch and highlight corn in one of its most favourite forms.

Course 5: Braised marrow & baba ganoush with quinoa, raita & fried veg: The previous dishes had been mid-sized, but this one was the big kahuna – the one we’d been prepping our stomachs for with the past plates. This giant hunk of tender and juicy roast marrow was absolutely sensational, and when paired with some of the roasted red pepper puree, quinoa, raita and stir fried veg – it created a combination of flavours that all sung harmoniously on the tongue. This dish definitely showed that you don’t need meat to have a hearty and delicious main meal that makes you come back for more and more and more!

Course 6: Rhubarb Crumpet & cheese: Being English, as soon as I saw crumpet on the menu, my mouth instantly started watering, and luckily my senses were correct in getting that excited for a meal because this crumpet was hands down one of the best little baked beauties I’ve tried. Hillside likes to push flavour boundaries, and this certainly showed my taste buds what combos are hidden out there. Who would’ve thought that the strong umami flavour of parmesan would complement the sweet and sour notes of stewed rhubarb? I didn’t before this dish, but heck am I an advocate for it now!

Course 8: Sweet Potato ice cream, nectarine & muesli: Now this pre-dessert dish here holds the real culinary sorcery – somehow, the remarkable chefs at Hillside have taken the humble sweet potato and turned it into an ice cream that kicks the asses of most high end ice cream manufacturers I’ve ever tried. This ice cream was lovely and thick in texture, but velvety on the tongue, and delivered a flavour that was sweet, but interestingly warm, with almost a faint cinnamon spice to the taste. Get a spoonful of this ice cream with a scattering of the crunchy nutty muesli and a slither of the poached nectarines and holy mother, you’re in pre-dessert paradise.

Course 9: Choux & strawberries: What’s better than one dessert? Two desserts – obviously. This sweet treat was the crème de la crème of the evening, a beautifully big and buttery choux bun slathered in smooth and silky elderflower crème and dotted with succulent stewed strawberries. The sweetness of the slightly squidgy strawberries brought out the sourness of the elderflower cream, that was then mellowed out by the buttery-ness of the crispy and fluffy choux. This dish is living proof that you don’t need a million elements and textures in a dish to make it a star, all you need is classic flavours done right.

Course 10: Petit fours: Caramel cookie, Peanut chocolate & crystallised apple: You’d think after 9 dishes we’d be done – but you’d be wrong. And I’m happy we didn’t stop at 9 either. There’s nothing better than regrettably thinking a degustation is over, getting ready to pop your coat on, when suddenly the waiter makes their way to the table, bearing a plate of petit fours just to tip you over from full to food coma – I just love it. I’m personally not a massive fan of caramel, nor peanut butter & chocolate, however I am a sucker for a fruit sweet, so my favourite petit fours was definitely that small cube of lip-suckingly sour granny smith apple jelly – it definitely kicked me awake from the food coma!

So, there you have it – a degustation that was decadent, delicious, damn-right-cheap-for-what-you-got, and most of all – vegetarian! That’s right fellow readers, Hillside has cracked it. 10 fabulous dishes that were curiously creative and confused my taste buds in all the best ways. We also paired these dishes with non-alcoholic drink matches that shocked us; some beautiful and some down-right bizarre, but both making the meals shine more nonetheless. Meat-eater, omnivore, vegetarian or vegan – if you haven’t ventured into the valley of Thorndon to check out this Hillside hotspot, you’re starving yourself of a fabulous night out.  

Check out Hillsides menu here.

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