For one thing, it’s situated one and a half hours away from Sydney, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Literally. All you can see around here is lots of plain, empty land. The endless flat ground, with dry yellow grass (because we’re in Australia, of course), a couple of lonely, skinny trees here and there and an occasional cow or two- just like the type you see for hours on a long drive along a highway. And to make it a little bit stranger, all the diners here don’t actually come from this area- they all come from suburban Sydney. And then there’s the name of this restaurant, Zen Oasis, which (to me) sounds nothing like a restaurant name really- perhaps a resort of some sort, but not a restaurant.
We arrive by car, slowly along the windy gravel road until we reach the end, to find plenty of other cars already parked there. Never mind that our GPS seems a little lost, with our car sitting in a middle of a big green patch on the screen, with no roads to be seen- at least we’re in the right place! The sight of the large pond draws our attention- perhaps this is the reason for the 'oasis' part of the name? Sitting next to the pond is what appears to be a small wooden cottage- it doesn't take long to figure that the cottage is the restaurant.
We’re here from the recommendation given by family friends. Apparently, this place has been open for a while and is quite well known within the Cantonese-Chinese community (the same bunch you'll see flocking Eastwood every weekend for their grocery shopping). It’s very popular too- the restaurant opens at 11:30 and we’ve only arrived a couple of minutes later but have already found the restaurant mostly full, with customers already comfortably seated and digging into their food. We are shown to our table, in a small dark corner by a waiter who notifies us of their food wastage policy before we are let loose to grab some of the food we’ve been eagerly awaiting to try.
So- what’s so great about the food that makes people travel so far just to eat it??
To me, it’s not just that the food tastes good; it’s the fact that the food is ingenious. Zen Oasis is a vegetarian restaurant, but instead of serving up plates of veggies and tofu, it serves up seemingly ordinary dishes with vegetarian foods disguised as meat. And you don’t really notice it! The meats are not only replicated in appearance and taste, they are also replicated in texture- even with fake fat within the ‘meat’!
Fried Banana, (and I don't know what the rest are meant to be.....)
Of course, we start with the unhealthy fried foods, which have their own table, separate from the mains. Unlike your typical RSL buffets, there were no fried chips or potato wedges to be found, but instead a more unusual selection of delicious crunchy foods.
I don't usually like fried banana, but I make the exception to try it this time, because the black sesame seeds make it look different and yummier. And it is! It doesn't taste quite as banana-y as most fried bananas I've had (which is a good thing) and the batter is deliciously crispy and crunchy. Made with a similar batter, the round fried ball thing reminds me of fish balls, with its nori wrapping making it extremely tasty.
Spring Roll and 'wu cee'
And of course, the beloved spring roll, which is filled with a slightly sweet veggie filling and is delicious with its crispy exterior
Wrapped in a layer of nori, giving it a slight fishy taste, and then fried in a crispy batter, this fried salmon is one of my favourite fried foods. Biting into the crispy batter reveals the tender pink interior which tastes amazingly like salmon- and it even tears off in the exact same way cooked salmon does!
Fried (yellow) 'eel'
Again, nori is used to give this a little fishy flavour. The thin strips of 'eel' are fried until very crisp and crunchy and then covered in a slight sweet sauce. And if you've never had deep fried eel before, just take a look at these pictures to see the resemblance!
Selection of fried foods
With so many crispy and crunchy foods on offer, I could happily stuff myself with just the fried foods =)
Rice Dumplings (Zhongzi)
These cute little dumplings are so small, I could eat them in one mouthful! They must have taken forever to wrap....
The rice dumplings are made of glutinous rice and instead of the meat filling, mushrooms and beans along with other ingredients which I'm not quite sure what they're supposed to replicate. But they're incredibly flavoursome and are so good, we each eat a couple of these. Luckily they have heaps of these, kept warm in layers of bamboo steamers- they really must have taken forever to wrap!
Surprisingly, our favourite of all is the simplest one- fried rice. Unlike your usual chinese style fried rice with colourful veggies and egg, this fried rice is fried with shredded pieces of nori and other veggies. It tastes suprisingly tasty despite its simplicity compared to other dishes, but is so good that we keep going back for more!
A smooth, silky wonton wrapper envelops delicious fake prawn failling- even from the outside, you can see the pinkish interior which looks decievingly like a prawn filling!
Vegetarian Char Siew (chinese barbecued pork)
I love how realistic the char siew looks- the shape is exactly like the real one! But even more incredible is that it tastes amazingly real, perhaps with a lesser pork taste than the usual but still has a incredibly meat-like texture. It's slightly soft, like the real good quality char siew that you may occasionally get- the type with just the right amount of fat. Of course, there's no real pork or pork fat in this, so we can happily wolf down a lot of these without the guilt =) Covered with a delicious char siew sauce, this is definitely one of the best char siew I've ever had, real or fake!
Steamed Chinese Dumpling
I'm not quite sure which dumpling this is exactly trying to replicate (maybe it's not really trying to replicate anything at all?) because the filling is difficult to recognise but the delicious, soft transparent dumpling wrapper tastes just like yum cha dumplings. Personally I think the skin was not as soft as I'd like it, but it was delicious all the same =)
The sushi is really pretty- it's not only colourful but is made into many wonderful shapes and patterns. The sushi is made fresh, behind the table of food so that we are able to witness it being made whilst we get our food. And despite being vegetarian and full of veggies, it tastes every bit as good as it looks!
Fruit Jelly and Mochi (glutinous rice balls)
Vegetarian desserts are not the most difficult things to make (who puts meat in desserts??)so the restaurant goes little further here, to make most of the desserts vegan.
The cute little jelly is looks simple but is surprisingly delicious and addictive with pieces of fruit studded throughout the smooth, sweet, tropical jelly.
The mochi is another addictive dessert- a soft, chewy glutinous rice ball, covered in specks of coconut witha delicious mung bean (I think) filling. Seriously addictive =)
Blueberry Cheesecake, Sponge Cake and something (haha...I forgot what it was =S)
The blueberry cheesecake is a little firmer than what I normally like, but tastes delicious. The spongecake is also a little dry, but with its delicious custard filling and light coconut topping, tastes so light and yummy that we don't really mind.
Red Bean Dessert
Chocolate Mud Cake
The rich and dense chocolate cake is tastes heavenly, especially with its rich ganache icing. Perhaps not so popular with the adults who complain it's too rich and sweet but the slice is small anyway!
Mini Coconut Tarts and mini lemon meringue pie
The mini coconut tarts are really cute and taste delicious, although I prefer coconut tarts served warm rather than cold. But other than that they are an addictive treat- not too oily or sweet! I was surprised when my parents also decided to eat the lemon meringue pie because they don't usually like meringue. But it's so cute, it's hard to resist!
Looking back, I probably should have taken more photos because there was a lot more food I didn't take photos of- but there's always next time! Outside, there's a small path surrounding the pond- it's short and only takes one minute or so to complete the whole circle but does give a good opportunity for photo taking, and, more importantly, for a little exercise to help digest the food. Before the long 1.5 hour drive home. =)
Zen Oasis Vegetarian Restaurant
Lot 2 Medway Road Berrima NSW 2577
(Berrima & Moss Vale Exit of Hume Highway)
Tel: 0404 099 285 OR 02 4877 1285
Open 11:30-1:40 Sat and Sun
$31 for adults and $16 for children