Helen's buffet beats 'Duck Soup' syndrome
It's cold, dark and damp, and there are few takers for 99s from O'Keeffe's on Main Street this late November. For with the salad days of summer long gone, it's comfort food we're craving, as we edge deeper into winter.
But it isn't always easy to get. I've been vegetarian for three decades now, but dining out can still be a frustrating experience. I may not eat animals, but I sometimes feel like biting the head off carnivores who smile as they point out the "vegetarian option."
After all, how would you feel if everyone else is humming and hawing over their copious choices, while you are left staring at those two words? Which is one more than the number of dishes on offer for you.
Even top restaurants and hotels can be guilty of repeating that Fawlty Towers' 'Gourmet Night' episode involving 'Duck Surprise.' For if it's not pasta in tomato sauce, then it's tomato sauce over pasta.
Some restaurants suggest choosing a salad from their menu. Which is marvellous, if you're watching your weight. But being vegetarian doesn't mean you're on a diet - especially in winter and when dining out.
And, much as I appreciate chefs offering to 'rustle up something', who wants a blind date on their plate?
I'm lucky that Thomastown has the brilliant Cafe Sol, which has several vegetarian dishes on the menu. But things got even better recently. I was driving around one Sunday, when I nearly crashed into a sandwich board outside the Watergarden Cafe that was advertising a pop-up vegetarian buffet.
I finally made it there to taste the goods. And boy, were they good and tasty. Chef Helen Costelloe uses locally supplied, organic food where possible, to produce scrumptious dishes. Such as sweet potato soup, lentil bake with pumpkin mash, and winter vegetable korma.
Helen has been a chef since she was 17. She turned vegetarian two years prior to that. "My sister and myself gave up meat for Lent, and it spiralled from there."
Two years ago, she made her catering business vegetarian too. With a family and other work commitments, she doesn't want a full-time venue. "But if things pick up, we'd love to do more. It's my dream to have a vegetarian restaurant. I want people to have the option locally."
Many of her customers are meat eaters who want to try something new. "Once they sit down and start to eat, they love it. Until then, people think vegetarian food is like the options in most restaurants."
What does her cattle-dealer father think of it? "He's absolutely disgusted," Helen laughs. "Because there are eight of us in the family, and now four are vegetarians. There are nieces and nephews also; it's filtering down the line."
And into the mainstream. Which means that one day soon, I may take as long as my carnivore chums when deciding between dishes.