It’s been a while since I last ventured into a fusion restaurant, let alone one that skillfully harmonizes not just two, but three distinct culinary traditions into a symphony of flavors. Calle Rey has masterfully achieved this feat, exuding both confidence and finesse through its plant-based and gluten-free menu. The abundance of exquisite diversity in taste is so captivating that it inevitably invites you to return time and time again.
Let’s dive into the heart of the experience: the mesmerizing interior decor. As you step inside, you’re instantly transported to a vibrant Mexican oasis, awash with an explosion of colours and twinkling fairy lights. The walls are adorned with sprawling mural paintings that are nothing short of breathtaking. These captivating artworks seamlessly blend animals, human faces, and an array of cultural influences, setting the stage for the eclectic fusion cuisine that awaits. From subtle traces of Japanese Nihonga to the spirited skeleton art reminiscent of Spanish Dia De Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, the decor itself is a tapestry of cultural sophistication that beautifully mirrors the forthcoming culinary journey.
The menu provides an ambitious array of options, to say the least. But one with a noble goal in mind – sustainability. Madi Cohen and head chef JC want to change the stereotypes of what veganism is to the everyday consumer and you can bet I was enlightened by such intentions in the food that was offered.
We kicked off our culinary adventure with the Al Pastor Mushroom Quesadilla from the sharing plate menu. The magic of 100% corn tortillas was undeniable—the quesadilla boasted a satisfyingly crispy exterior that paid homage to tradition. Accompanied by a trio of sauces, including a robust salsa verde, a tantalizingly fiery pineapple salsa, and a ‘creamy avocado dip’ (distinct from guacamole, as our attentive waitress noted), the flavours danced on our palates. Packed with ‘Al Pastor’ mushroom adobo, this vegan filling was an instant hit, delivering a Latin American adobo spiciness that veered away from its Filipino counterpart, yet remained light in its essence. While the mushroom filling might have benefited from a touch more tenderness, the trio of sauces swooped into the rescue, crafting a satisfyingly complex profile that flawlessly countered the already slick and crispy tortilla textures. Each bite exploded with a symphony of flavours, showcasing the beauty of contrasts.
Venturing into the Japanese fusion set menu (ideal for a minimum of two), our culinary journey commenced with an explosive opening act: the Sweet Chilli Togarashi Cauliflower. What a solid and explosive entrance this was. If you want contrasting flavours and texture, this cauliflower reigns supreme. A crispy batter shell for the cauliflower’s outer layer boasts an exquisite medley of toppings – crispy shallots, togarashi sauce, green onions, and a drizzle of zesty wasabi mayo. This crunchy coating contrasts beautifully with the softest and most juicy cauliflower you’ve ever had that still has just the right amount of solid bite to keep its floret head in the game. The juxtaposition of the crunchy exterior against the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth cauliflower creates a delightful dance of textures. It’s a great marriage of umami flavours with contrasting textures and a sweet chilli sauce that pairs extremely well with the wasabi mayo before showering across the cauliflower with all its sweet and spicy might.
Prepare for the pinnacle of intrigue: the Aji Amarillo Passion Fruit ‘Ebu’ Furai. Let’s break down the name. Aji Amarillo, a Peruvian yellow chilli, brings its fruity essence to the table. ‘Ebu’ Furai, a creative twist that might stem from ‘Ebi‘—the Japanese term for breaded and deep-fried prawns. Now, the question arises: How does a vegan-focused eatery replace prawns? The answer is Konjac and it’s a pretty successful answer at that. This root vegetable has such a tenderness thanks to its starchy fibre which masqueraded the meaty tenderness of prawns almost a tad too well. The passion fruit and Aji Amarillo sauce make for quite a sweet and sour syrupy jacket to this deep-fried ‘prawn’.
Behold the taco extravaganza—Eggplant Tacos boasting tonkatsu sauce, wasabi mayo, pickled cabbage, ginger, and crispy shallots!! Eggplant, a vegetable known for its challenges, often perplexes cooks with its high water content and stubborn skin, resulting in a less-than-ideal texture (for the vegetable, not the human chef) Yet, the solution is simple—cook it to perfection! And that’s precisely what you’ll find here. That’s what you get with this eggplant that’s still juicy and soft on the inside with a crust on the outside equating to something akin to the fried fish of a hoki fillet. However, amidst the splendid fusion of sweet, spicy, and sour flavours, a touch of familiarity emerges, echoing the previous two dishes. Still, the delight persists, even if the unfortunately dried lime slice deprived me of the anticipated ‘squirty squirts’ for that zesty finish.
Enter the fifth and final savoury creation, which I predict might ignite some spirited debate among diners. Presenting the Maki Furai – a crispy maki roll adorned with nori seaweed, creamy avocado, ‘crab’ kanikama, crème ‘cheese’, teriyaki sauce, Amarillo mayo, crispy sweet potato, wasabi paste, and a dash of pickled ginger. It’s sweet and spicy deep-fried sushi. While not entirely unprecedented, the unique texture of deep-fried glutinous sushi rice might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I honestly did not know what the vegan ingredients of the crab kaniakama and crème cheese were and nor did the staff I asked. Nevertheless, there’s a velvety smoothness in their presence that seamlessly merges into the tapestry of contrasting textures, from crispy to creamy, saucy, and delightfully spicy.”
Behold the dessert finale – the Five Spice Chocolate Brownie. This concoction brought about an epiphany for me. Who could have thought to harness the storied Chinese spice blend, Five Spice, in sweet creations? With its delightful ensemble of cloves and cinnamon, the blend seemed tailor-made for dessert. Comprising star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds (with other variations boasting nutmeg, ginger root, and anise seed), this iconic mix makes a fantastic addition to the brownie. The result is an earthy, warmly spiced depth that infuses the humble brownie with an air of wisdom, akin to a veteran dessert regaling tales of yore. Amidst this flavourful spectacle, the coconut ice cream shines in its unpretentious, remarkably creamy glory, offering a sweetness that hits just the right note.
While Five Spice may hail from Chinese cuisine rather than Japanese, it’s a clever and innovative note to conclude the feast. Yet, the thought lingers of the untapped potential residing in the unique dessert flavours of Japan, Peru, and Mexico. Could a Yuzu-infused Mazamorra Morada or a Matcha Turron De Dona Pepa await us? The realm of possibilities stretches infinitely, even within the vegan spectrum.
An equally noteworthy facet of Calle Rey is its Diablo Pisco Bar, a refreshing take on the often-overlooked Peruvian scene in Sydney. This unique concept stands as a pioneering force in its category while paying homage to the classic Tequila Bar tradition. My dining companion and I decided to share one of their intriguing ‘Largeritas‘ – a margarita fit for titans, composed of Pisco (the renowned Peruvian grape-based brandy), a medley of fruit juices and purees, and an amusingly positioned fruit-flavoured vodka cruiser that mirrors the Largerita’s flavour ranging from ‘Strawberita’ to ‘Passionfruit Sunset’. The Largerita glass itself boasts dimensions akin to a generously proportioned human head, and with Pisco carrying an alcohol content of 38-48 percent, it’s an adventure not to be taken lightly—unless, of course, you’ve had an exceptionally demanding day at the office.
Our culinary escapade merely scratched the surface of Calle Rey’s expansive fusion menu. Beyond our delightful selection of the Japanese fusion set menu, there lies an entire universe of gastronomic wonders, including another dedicated set tasting menu, an array of seven fusion tacos, nine tantalizing sharing plates, and an assortment of midweek specials.
While our journey through the Japanese fusion set gracefully interwove Peruvian and Mexican influences, the unmistakable Japanese essence shone through, albeit with a subtly sweeter note than the expected umami explosion. Calle Rey seamlessly showcases a diverse array of underrepresented, plant-based flavours, celebrating the symphony of contrasts in textures and tastes. With its remarkable ingredients and cultural authenticity, this establishment is a gem waiting to be further explored. Count me in for a return visit, armed with more companions, ready to embark on a voyage through the remaining treasures this diverse menu has to offer.