Friday, September 11, 2009

Food, Culture and Community at Lentil as Anything

Lentil As Anything
Abbotsford Convent
1 St. Heliers St
Ph: (03) 9419 6444

I read a review the other day that described the food at Lentil as Anything as "hearty and filling but not quite delicious". I'm happy to report that I, and my fellow diners, completely disagreed with this statement when we visited for the lunch buffet a few days ago.

The restaurant serves up vegetarian dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes from an all-you-can-eat buffet, more often from an a la carte menu, and runs on the policy that diners pay whatever they feel for their food and drink. The convent restaurant is the largest out of the three Lentil restaurants that operate in Melbourne, and is used not only to serve hungry customers but also as a place where volunteer staff can learn valuable hospitality skills, aspiring musicians are given opportunities to perform, and " provide an alternative for hopelessness and desperation in society" (Hernan Palacio, Community and Cultural Development Coordinator).

A few of the dishes on offer: stuffed peppers, spinach puffs, Japanese pancakes, broccoli, creamy pasta, Sri Lankan rice.

I got a little excited by the colourful, fragrant buffet of food and piled my plate high so it's a bit hard to see each individual dish, but also featured here is apple casserole, dhal, garden salad and crusty bread.

There were many favourites: I went back for second helpings of the crunchy, sweet stuffed peppers; the fragrant rice and dhal; and the interesting textures of the Japanese pancake and spinach puffs.

I love it when the people who produce the dishes are able to interact with their customers and watch them enjoying the food, rather than being stuck out the back the whole time. The chefs wandered around the room as we ate, encouraging us to try everything in the buffet and to go back for seconds.

The tables and chairs are mismatched and look like they came from an old classroom; decorations come in the form of community noticeboards and hand painted canvases swinging from the walls. African beats that you can't help but move to play over the sound system - as I waited in the line for the buffet the chef, Shamagam, saw my toes tapping and asked me if I had "happy feet". I also saw Shamagam flexing his muscles and dancing and laughing with other customers; there's certainly no lack of entertainment here. J visited for dinner a few days after our visit and said that they were screening Charlie Chaplin movies with a projector, and diners ate by candlelight. Its little touches at Lentil that add to the casual, relaxed, yet under-control atmosphere.

I ordered a chai latte with my meal, which came out quite watery and weak, but everyone else enjoyed their coffees. Despite the lack of set prices, none of the dishes tasted like old or poor quality ingredients been used - they don't sacrifice the taste of the dishes just to keep costs down. It's fantastic that a place that operates on a "pay what you like" policy has managed to thrive and grow so much, but once you taste the quality of the dishes and see the positive attitude of the staff you understand why people come back and continue to give. I'm looking forward to going back soon to check out whats on offer for breakfast.

Lentil as Anything restaurants are also located in St Kilda and Brunswick, and the organisation runs the canteen at Collingwood College. Lentil As Anything at the Abbotsford Convent is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 9am-9pm (no breakfast Mondays).

1 comment:

  1. I used to go to the one in Sydney Road (not sure if it is still there). Fabulous curries and tagines; the relishes served with them were to die for.

    Apparently it's a good business model - people often pay more when it's their choice.