I’ve been destroying dumplings during lunchtime yum cha sessions at Sydney CBD vegan restaurant Bodhi for well over 15 years now. I’ve never been disappointed, but it was only recently that I realised this beautiful al-fresco style dining room offers heavenly a la carte options once the clock ticks 5pm. I say heavenly because well, they are literally sent from Heaven. Bodhi’s owner is the most beautiful (inside and out) woman called Heaven Leigh and she’s been running the show since her mum handed her the reigns circa 2000.

You see, the Bodhi team have been serving Sydney the ultimate in vegan, Buddhist-based dining since 1988, first operating out of a small venue in China Town, with Heaven’s mum at the helm. In 2000, right around the time of the Sydney Olympics, Heaven happened upon its current location, fortuitously for lease, when she took an afternoon stroll around the then recently built Cook Phillip Park.

She managed to secure the lease and Bodhi relocated its kitchen, bringing with her ‘Kitty’ Xiao Hong Huang, who is one of only three lead Yum Cha Chefs in Australia, as well as top vegan chefs to create the evening offerings. Fast forward 18 years, and it is truly an icon of Sydney dining.

It was in this oasis that I found myself on a recent summer night, with a vegan-curious omnivore in tow. Sat amongst stunning Moreton Bay figs wrapped in twinkling fairy lights, we chowed down on the yummiest organic, seasonal vegan food I’ve tasted in a few months (since my night enjoying Longrain’s vegan banquet, actually).

We kicked off our feast with Betel Leaves that had a filling of crushed peanut, toasted coconut, green papaya, crispy soy, citrus fruit and nahm jim dressing, teamed with a Mongol cocktail for my buddy and a Sinnerman mocktail for myself.

The combination of tangy, sweet and sour with a hint of chilli in the leaves was perfectly balanced by our refreshing drinks, the latter of which are created using seasonal organic herbs, fruits, fresh pressed juices and bespoke syrups. Both were the perfect entrée for the meal on a warm summer night.

In our haste to sample the Betel Leaves, we had put off deciding what was to follow! If you’ve read any of my other dining experiences, you’ll know how much I hate making food decisions, especially at the end of the day. Thankfully, the layout of Bodhi is such that while you’re never sitting on top of other diners, it’s quite an open space, so you can sneak a peek at what they have ordered. And that is exactly what we did.

The girls at the table behind us had a dish that looked so amazing I almost mugged them for it. It appeared to be little chicken wings, marinated and fried to crisp perfection. They happily explained that it was in fact light crispy Finger Eggplant with chili, toasted sesame seeds, sweet black rice vinegar, caramel sauce, coriander and peanuts. We swiftly ordered this dish, which was crispy on the outside, sticky-sweet and salty with a hint of hotness from the chili, and a softer inside that melted in the mouth. I can’t recommend it enough.

We let out an audible gasp when Bodhi Sliders with fried salt and pepper ‘chicken’ with a spicy Malay peanut sauce, cucumber and Asian herbs in a gua bao bun, was served to the folk a few tables along from us. They looked so amazing that we ordered them straight away. They were seriously great, with a sweet, warm bun that beautifully hugged the crunchy ‘chicken’.

I can’t begin to describe these any better than my extremely well-travelled dinner companion did, who mumbled with a full mouth “world class taste”. Seriously, I could eat only these for the rest of my life and be happy, but I was here to sample a few different dishes, so it was time to order up!

My dinner companion and I are both partial to a bit of spice, so our next choice was South East Asian Curry of grilled butternut pumpkin, zucchini, cauliflower and tofu with a lemon zest vegan sour cream and crispy kale and a side of brown rice (Bodhi gives you the option between brown and white rice, which I love). I’d spied it on an inside table when I popped to the ladies’ room.

This was a beautiful mix of textures, from the firm tofu, succulent eggplant, soft pumpkin and perfectly crispy kale, set in a really spicy sauce. If you don’t love a bit of fire in your mouth, maybe avoid this. We both crave chili and for anyone else reading who also embraces a bit of heat, well, I guarantee you’ll adore this dish.

Up next came the palette-cooling Bodhi Vegan Peking ‘duck’ with hoisin sauce, cucumber and handmade pancakes, which the girls on the table behind us, who were now our new best friends, strongly advised we try.

I swear, we could not tell that we weren’t eating real meat! Even my omnivore friend had to second guess this dish. The soy protein had been perfectly spun into little textured strips, marinated, cooked and then served with pancakes and all the regular accompaniments that come with traditional Peking Duck.

The quality of the plant-based meat impersonators that Bodhi creates is second to none, making it the ideal place to take anyone who is vegan-curious, in transition to a kinder way of eating, or simply misses the texture and tastes of these traditional meat dishes now that they’re vegan.

Of course, we couldn’t possibly leave without trying the vegan desserts and we found the Deconstructed Chai Brulee with coffee crumb soil, candied hazelnuts and latte ‘ice cream’ to be the perfect way to round up the meal. Its flavours were soft, with the gentle chai spice complemented beautifully by the vanilla from the soy ice cream.

Heaven told us when she joined us for dessert: “The stricter we are in our cooking practices, the more people we feed and please.” Well, currently, the team feeds between 2500 and 3000 people each week, so they are clearly doing everything right.

Indeed, I found Bodhi’s dinner offerings and its hospitality so amazing that I went back the following Thursday to try some dishes that I’d missed on my first visit.

Favourites from that feast, which I highly recommend you try, include: Shiitake Mushroom Dumplings with asparagus and truffle oil, Crispy Chicken Skewers served with coriander, kaffir lime leaves and a sweet chilli, lemongrass sauce, Braised Japanese Tataki with wakame and mushroom floss and for dessert, Pandan Sponge and Coconut Mousse with a palm sugar glaze and sea salt caramel ice cream. Needless to say, I rolled home again after that feast!

It’s worth also noting the other things Bodhi gets massive ticks from me for:
– Its range of craft beers and Aussie boutique wines is carefully curated by Heaven and her staff from local growers who use organic, bio-dynamic or environmentally friendly farming practices;
– They have gluten free options on request and can cater to allergies and dietary requirements;
– They buy from local growers that have ethical sustainable farming practices and they choose organic product wherever possible;
– They don’t cook with onion, garlic, spring onion chives or shallots as they are inflammatory, and the Buddhists believe they interfere with meditation; and
– Everything in 100 percent vegan, with no animal products or by-products even entering the kitchen.
– Bodhi holds special events throughout the year, including a Valentine’s Day set menu, Mother’s Day luncheons and regular Nup to the ‘Cup luncheons on Melbourne Cup Day which celebrates fashion and food, without the cruelty of horseracing.

Bodhi is located at:
Lower Mezzanine Level
Cook and Philip Park (between St Mary’s Cathedral and the swimming pool)
2 – 4 College Street, Sydney
02 9360 2523
bodhirestaurant.com.au

Opening Hours
Lunch (Yum Cha)
Monday – Friday 11am – 3pm
Saturday – Sunday 11am – 4pm

Dinner (a la Carte)
Tuesday – Sunday 5pm – 10pm

Closed on Public Holidays