There's nothing apologetic about Transformer. It's out-and-proud vegetarian, a restaurant that refuses the carnivore-pandering compromise of mock meat and meatless versions of meaty dishes. It's refreshingly devoid of mission statements and explanations. It neither worships tofu nor shies from it. Even the word "vegetarian" is MIA. Transformer just presents itself as what it is: a restaurant dishing up original, occasionally inventive and often very good food.
This is not to say it's immune to trend and fad.
Its location, a carefully renovated former factory in a Fitzroy side street, gives that away from the get-go. Then there's the presence on the menu of the now apparently obligatory snack-in-a-bun. At Transformer it's a bao in which an excellent beer-battered square of tofu (chewiness! crunch!) hangs out with pickled cucumbers, Thai basil and a rich yolk-yellow vegan mayo flavoured with spicy gochujang. That's all stuffed into an impressive steamed house-made spelt and seed bun. The bun itself carries with it a slight hint of chilli heat from the shichimi togarashi that's been added to the dough. It's a disarming combination, a kind of lay-back-and-think-of-tofu moment that helps alleviate the suspicions some diners might have about eating dinner sans animal protein.
But there's plenty to soothe the jangled nerves of skittish non-vegetarians even before the bao lands. There's the sophisticated fit-out, for one, combining a nightclub-like façade - strips of yellow LEDs, street art-inspired murals - with a charming airy interior, cleverly divided by panels of chicken wire that play trellis for lush plantings of devil's ivy and heartleaf philodendron. Amid all the greenery are handsome bare timber tables, banquettes with upholstered seats, a mix of wicker and timber chairs, and spotlights suspended over diners by black powder-coated steel stems, all framed by distressed brick walls and a polished, terrazzo-like concrete floor.
In the centre of the space is a kind of timber-panelled pod housing the kitchen and bar. Out the back there's a charming courtyard. It's all very photogenic, comfortably fashionable and non-threateningly cool, with recycled materials and no visible vegetarian accent. Even better, for such a large and potentially arctic space, it's heated effectively in winter, inside and out.
Service, from a quip-ready team in leather-strapped aprons, matches the room's ambitions. The staff knows each dish thoroughly (though they're not as universally cluey when it comes to the wine side of the equation) and keep water glasses topped and food arriving at convenient intervals, all while maintaining non-irritating levels of enthusiasm. For those familiar with Transformer's much older sibling, the nearby Vegie Bar in Brunswick Street, this level of service and attention to detail might come as a surprise.
Transformer's owners, Laki Papadopoulos and Mark Price, who also own Fitzroy's Rice Queen, opened Vegie Bar 27 years ago. It's been one of Brunswick Street's consistent performers, often jammed full of the vegetarian and vegan hordes that have always called this neck of the woods home (or at least their spiritual home). But the family resemblance of the well-worn and slightly ramshackle old canteen and this snappily dressed, distinctly restauranty newcomer begins and ends with the lack of meat and the liberal sprinkling of vegan options. Vegie Bar's faux chicken wrap and bean burrito aesthetic occupies a different demographic from that of Transformer's prettily plated concoctions.
Take the ricotta and rye gnocchi. Arrayed on a plate among piped peaks of pale-orange pumpkin mousse, dramatically dark pools of blueberry compote and a scattering of tiny leaves and flowers, it looks like a model for a pebble garden. It tastes at once robust, the pan-seared gnocchi glistening with browned butter, and sweetly delicate, the mousse mixed with crème fraîche and a little cinnamon. You might argue that the blueberries push the dish dangerously close to dessert territory, but there's no denying it's a looker.
A similar level of artiness characterises a dish of green curried polenta. The oblong of polenta, fried golden in the pan, subtly flavoured with Thai green curry, sits at the edge of a puddle of Thai pesto, all lime, coriander and peanuts. There are splodges of coconut cream and oyster mushrooms along with baby carrots, little balls of zucchini and roast cauliflower. The presentation, like the gnocchi's, has a diorama quality. There's a satisfying unity to all the elements here. It's the sort of dish that makes you slow down to work out exactly how the flavours are being delivered.
Given this kind of cohesion and confidence, it's surprising to learn that chef Luke Florence is a relative newcomer to the profession. His only other paid cooking gig was a year at Vegie Bar while Transformer came together. He and Papadopoulos travelled to the US to see the state of vegetarian play there, and on their return put the Transformer menu together.
The lack of a longer restaurant CV could explain both the unexpected delights - unique, even - of the menu and also the lack of complexity in some of the dishes that can make them seem a little out of step with the glam surrounds. They're not bad dishes by any stretch - a refreshing salad that throws together cucumber, tahini, spiced labne, chickpeas, almonds and olives, a dish of nattily grill-seared pears teamed with Holy Goat La Luna goat's cheese and a hazelnut polenta "croûton" - but they do come across as more café than restaurant.
That's not the case with a quite brilliant dish based on king oyster mushrooms from the Mornington Peninsula. The mushrooms, grilled to order, are teamed with confit garlic, rings of smoked and seared shallot, porcini-flavoured salt and an excellent pine nut purée that adds an earthy element to the mix.
Then there's the flamboyantly colourful sprouted brown rice and beetroot risotto, topped with a sculptural flurry of Asian mushrooms, herbed chèvre and togarashi; or the probably-shouldn't-work-but-actually-now-you-come-to-taste-it combination of organic soba, smoked tofu, pickled ginger, pomegranate seeds, capers, mizuna and house-made wasabi cashews. It's an East meets West meets Middle East collision, tied together with a punchy, vibrant dressing of tamari infused with chilli, ginger and yuzu. It may sound like stoner vegetarian food, but it's a lot of fun to eat, particularly texturally. It's certainly memorable.
The wine list is less memorable. The single-page document makes a stab at joining the organic/natural-wine conversation (sometimes quite successfully, as with a Save Our Souls organic rosé blend of cabernet franc, merlot and sangiovese) without ever being fully engaged. The prices - like those of the food - are reasonable; everything bar the Gosset Champagne remains south of $100. Reading the list, it's easy to conclude that it was assembled with more of an eye to cost and concision than to interest.
Those seeking a little boozy innovation should look at the cocktail list. Clever takes on classic drinks include the Aperol Dill Spritz, which riffs on the Italian classic, mixing Aperol, white wine, hibiscus rose bitters, soda, and dill salt to make a drink that's thirst-quenching with just the right levels of sweetness.
At the time of writing, the Transformer crew had yet to turn their minds to the sweet stuff in earnest and desserts were still coming from the Vegie Bar kitchen. The pick of the bunch, the one that shouldn't be voted off the island when the new desserts eventually arrive, is a deconstructed cheesecake. Chèvre is blended with crème fraîche and teamed with a good, well-balanced pear sorbet, a shard of filo pastry and honey caramel. Simple but sharp.
Transformer has the side-effect of making you feel slightly virtuous (do vegetarians experience that all the time? Perhaps that explains the smugness), but there are much better reasons for eating here. The room, the location and the cocktails help, but the food is sharp, good-looking and full of interesting flavour and texture combinations. It doesn't make you forget that you're not eating meat; better, it makes you not care. They're just putting good stuff on the plate. No apologies.