Have you ever been “mesmerised by the humble vegetable?”
When Simon Toohey made it to the final three in the 2019 season of MasterChef, he had already solidified himself as the “veggie guy.” His creativity and carefully considered approach to vegetables as the main event, has spilled over into this pop up all-vegan dining experience, and it is easy to see why he made it all the way to the finals.
Buried in the back of this lane-way haunt – a pop up within a pop up – Peachy Keen is the perfect location for Toohey’s relaxed, dinner party-vibed Smokehouse. As the guests arrive, each one is greeted like an old friend and it is this warm, inclusive attitude that sets the tone for the night ahead.
Familiar faces are everywhere, as other MasterChef alumni act as Toohey’s kitchen crew. Anushka Zargaryan – remembered for her fabulous cake creations, and Mandy Hall – the queen of fermentation, are on hand to lend their talents, meet, greet and plate up. Toohey’s wife Georgia is also in the mix, running table service. It really is a family affair.
The coals are doing their thing, and the heat coming from the little makeshift kitchen is simply adding to the overall atmosphere. We take our seats; excitement building, as we await our first course.
Simon Toohey is friendly and engaging. He talks us through each dish, explaining in detail, the level of care and thought that has gone into it. Broccoli and pumpkin seeds don’t sound all that fancy, but when given the Smokehouse treatment, their impact is undeniable. Bulgur serves to bind each dish together, attaching itself nicely to whatever saucy element it happens upon.
Jackson: Mr Beverage Extraordinaire, from LayLow in Seddon – another amazing bar in the west – is ensuring that no one goes thirsty. High quality gin serves as an aperitif, and cocktails are flowing. The wine pairings are a big hit, as glasses are topped up all around us.
From broccoli to beetroot. The tenderness of these beets, was of course the result of this style of cooking. At this point, we start to ponder how much more food there is to come, because filling up is not an option.
Leaving anything on the plate is also not an option…
Leeks are next and there is something about this dish that gets me all nostalgic. I have tasted this before, but obviously not in this incarnation. This leek and harissa flavour-combination is posing as something else from my childhood. I cannot put my finger on it, but I know that whatever it was, it wasn’t this elegantly put together.
The bulgur continues to sop up all the goodness and with each mouthful, I move closer to the point of bursting…
Roasty cashews and plump raisins.
Eggplant – that for lack of a better description, is just so damn meaty!
The aromas coming off of each dish, so intense. This meal is a total sensory experience, made all the better, by the communal setting that sees us all engaging each other – shared appreciation for what is transpiring.
Still the food comes…
Mushrooms! Because of course. Mushrooms that act as flavour magnets, being pulled into Toohey’s world of misos, dashis and vinegars! Ferments, herbs and spices. Flavour first. Always.
The thing that strikes me, beyond the obvious brilliance of the cooking, is Toohey’s generosity of spirit. With each interaction, he takes the time to promote his friends, his suppliers, his environment. The entire experience is not only a platform to highlight his amazing talent, but the talented people that surround him. In that spirit, we are offered one final course: dessert.
The Fresh Prince of Baklava – Walleed Rasheed – another of Toohey’s MasterChef mates, provides the sweets, and it is perfection. It smells like Christmas and tastes like happiness. Using coconut oil instead of Ghee, this traditional Middle Eastern treat is accompanied by a nip of espresso liquer – Mr Black Spirits – another opportunity for Toohey to highlight the skills of others.
The night ends with the chef plonking himself down between myself and another diner – Kate from Canberra. He chats and laughs. We follow suit. There is a feeling of satisfaction emanating from our host and is reflected in us all.