Beef carpaccio sprinkled with horseradish, anchovy, figs, fried capers, parmesan and grissini; morcilla blood sausage on creamy pomme de purée with a buttery soubise sauce; and slow-braised meatballs in creamy and fragrant salsa de almendras – these aren't the types of dishes that come to mind when you imagine an entirely plant-based menu. However, the mastermind behind Melbourne's beloved Smith & Daughters, Shannon Martinez, has yet again brought innovation and adventure to vegan dining.
It's no secret that Sydney's plant-based dining options have diminished since the pandemic, with more than ten vegan eateries closing over the past 18 months (including ramen haven Lonely Mouth in June 2022 and beloved yum cha joint Bhodi in August of the same year). Alibi (inside the Ovolo Hotel at Woolloomooloo) didn’t go untouched. Regulars may have noticed the absence of celebrity chef Matthew Kenney’s signature Los Angeles style from their menu, which left a giant eight-course chef’s tasting menu-sized hole in our stomachs that needed to be filled.
So Martinez's first foray in Sydney couldn’t have come sooner. Despite the fact that she isn’t vegan herself, she’s Australia’s poster girl for plant-based eating. She’s published three vegan cookbooks, is at the helm of three Melbourne plant-based eateries – Lona Misa, Smith & Deli, and the aforementioned Smith & Daughters, and has rolled out pop-ups and restaurant takeovers across Australia, including at some of Sydney's most popular spots (like Mary’s, Soul Burger, Gigi Pizzeria and Bad Hombres).
Martinez is well and truly up to the challenge of reigniting Sydney’s green scene, but are you ready for what she’s putting on the table? Her new Mediterranean-inspired menu at Alibi leans heavily on her Spanish heritage. The flavours and textures will have you forgetting there aren't any animal products on your plate, and wondering how the hell she does it.
Martinez may be a culinary magician, but the Alibi staff are more than happy to share her tricks of the trade. This comes in handy when navigating the Spanish, Italian and French language on the menu. If you’re looking to peruse the variety of meat replacement concoctions, you could start your adventure with an entrée of beef carpaccio that’s made using rice paper. For those who have eaten plant-based for some time now, memories of thinly sliced beef would be so diffused that this dish would pass for the famed Italian dish. Those who are more carnivorously inclined will find the horseradish, “anchovy”, figs, fried capers, “parmesan” and grissini that adorns the top provide enough of a facade to keep you intrigued if not partaking in the illusion.
Next, you might want to try the morcilla blood sausage. The waitstaff stayed tight-lipped on how this one was made. Of course, you won't find pig or blood inside, though it’s still a flavour bomb – its misty spices will make their way up your nostrils before the plate even hits the table. This is a dish that nails the multi-sensory illusion – each possible detail, down to the marbling of pork fat, has been represented. You’ll find this sausage sliced on top of a mountain of fluffy pomme du purée doused in creamy soubise sauce. It’s the perfect pairing for the side of charred broccolini drizzled in an aged orange and balsamic vinaigrette. If you’re looking for comfort food, you’ve found it.
But meat replacements aren’t the only stars of this menu. The grilled stone fruits, adorned with kataifi pastry and caramelised radicchio on a healthy serving of garlic labneh, is a beautiful example of how to mix sweet and savoury, and it’s sure to make your inner garlic girl happy.
The aromas of the chamomile-infused spaghettini, featuring squash, saffron and ricotta, surround you like a warm hug, even though the stronger flavours in the dish takeover once the pasta reaches your tastebuds. The dish is fresh and is a lighter option compared to the other ‘meatier’ menu options.
We loved the bold flavours of the crème Catalana – Spain's answer to the crème brûlée. While these desserts may look the same, the Catalana makes a standard brûlée taste like its basic cousin. It’s infused with citrus, cinnamon and masala chai-like spices, and the creamy custard melts in your mouth while the caramelised sugar adds a toffee crunch. All I can say is, make sure you save room for this dessert.
Suppose you’re suffering from decision fatigue after a long week on the grind – in that case, Alibi offers a set menu for Fridays and Saturdays. If a quiet and intimate night is on the cards, book an early dinner during the week to avoid the crowds (this will help prevent any sensory overload for those with auditory processing issues), as they play tunes bordering on house music.
Since 2018, Alibi Bar & Dining has successfully carved a space for itself as a modern high-end dining restaurant, managing to compete with the likes of Yellow and providing Sydneysiders with a glimpse of what innovative plant-based dining can look like. While the new menu brings a fresh start and some stability to Alibi’s menu, it is a sharp change from the light-and-bright menu that made an 8-course degustation achievable without having to roll yourself into the Uber at the end of the night (like we did).
But change isn’t necessarily bad, and with a scarcity of plant-based dining options within Sydney, this menu also isn’t a sign that we’re settling. If anything, it’s a sign that Sydney is ready to evolve and once again place itself as a city of innovation. Hopefully, one that sees Sydney plant-based dining options thriving too.