I Witness UK #2: The Vegan edition
Eating vegetarian in Britain has never been that difficult. The nation is, after all, the spiritual home of the chip butty, the egg roll, the cucumber sandwich and, so it often seems, the vegetable curry too. Eating vegan, though, is something else entirely. Whether it’s a desire to over-compensate for perceived absence of meat, or a genuine fondness for/addiction to dairy, almost every vegetarian option in every restaurant, fast-food joint, supermarket and service station, has some combination of milk, butter, cheese and eggs. This can prove frustrating, but as I discovered on my recent three-week trip back to the Motherland, it’s not insurmountable. More and more places are happy to oblige a vegan if you only just ask.
Take the Mason’s Arms on the Harrow Road in Kensal Green, the new hip area for those priced/parented out of Notting Hill. More than just a pub, yet not quite a gastropub, the Mason’s Arms hosts comedy nights and club nights too: the Dub Pistols played the (presumably relaunched) pub’s fifth birthday in November. As for the food, it was easy enough to request the grilled vegetable sandwich and chips without the accompanying melted cheese; for a (relatively pricey) lunchtime meal while conducting the first of many pub interviews for my Smiths book, it went down just fine. In fact, it was damn good. Especially the fries. Service was with a smile. The pace was leisurely. A table next to us seemed to be working their way through a bottle or two of wine. You could have been forgiven for not knowing it was meant to be a work day, let alone a Monday. And that, to be honest, is one of the beauties of Britain – the fact that nobody seems willing to let the time of day, let alone the day of the week, get in the way of a good drink.
But for the real McCoy example of increasingly helpful attitudes, take the Harwood Arms near Fulham Broadway. I had no idea a friend was treating me to a Michelin-starred gastropub for lunch, and freaked out when we sat down and studied the menu, full of words like “rabbit,” “snails,” “oyster” and “Berksire Roe deer.” (Co-owner Mike Robinson shoots the venison himself.) Not surprisingly, the limited vegetarian items were ladled with “curd cheese” and “quail’s eggs.” This was not a place for the faint of heart (disease). Yet my polite request for possible alternatives was quickly met with an amended menu direct from the chef’s mouth. The pea and onion spring fritters came with some mushrooms instead of mayonnaise; the field mushrooms on toast left out the egg and added some tapenade. Both these items were simply sensational. The tapanade, in particular, was as if from another world – though it was the balance of all the ingredients that provoked such an incredibly tantalizing flavor dance on the tongue. I’ve always maintained that you can tell a great restaurant by its readiness to jump off-menu, and for the Harwood Arms’ willingness both to accommodate an unexpected dietary request and then deliver lunch-time food of this quality, I fully understand its a Michelin star. We didn’t partake of the excellent wine list, nor the beers which, with Edwin Vaux from the Vaux Brewery in as a second co-owner (the Ledbury’s Brett Graham is the third), are presumably every bit as artisinal as the food. I did order a tea though – a Chinese flower that, as seen through the glass teapot, blossomed in the hot water, and was quite delicious. I might not return here of my volition, given that I don’t like places that celebrate the killing of wild animals quite so profoundly, but I do understand its acclaim.
Gastropubs are all well and good, and they may be the wave of the present, but it wouldn’t be a trip to Britain without a curry or two and, later on a Friday night than I had intended, the Thames Tandoori next to the Wellington Pub on Waterloo Road served as good an inexpensive Indian as I can remember. The vegetarian options here are ludicrously plentiful; I ended up having some brand new item on the menu that I can’t quite remember, along with a Lal Koddu (butternut squash) Bhuna. The nan was great, so were the onion bhajis. £45 including tip for three of us, including drinks, seemed fair, especially as we (well, I) ordered more than we could eat. And I’m pleased to see, in researching this story on the web, that you can study the menu for yourself at the inevitable web site Curries Online. Go for it.
Up to Manchester, where the pace is less frenetic, and truly, the locals much more friendly than in London, and where service certainly comes with a genuine smile – but sometimes lacking the elements that qualify it as “service” to begin with. Evidence was to be found Monday lunchtime at the Lead Station in Chorlton, a converted police station that serves as a neighborhood café, pub, restaurant, coffee shop, nursery and late-night hang-ouot. The vegetarian breakfast looked ideal for a mid-day meal, all the more so when it was confirmed I could exchange the egg for another vegan sausage and get whole grain bread as the natural selection. The meal duly showed up a few minutes later … with a fried egg on top and white bread on the bottom! My server (not the one who took my order) seemed impervious to the idea that an apology might be needed. But who cares? (She certainly didn’t.) The food was filling, the price was right, and when Friday rolled around and I had someone else to meet in the area for lunch, I returned to the scene of the fry-up. This time, the server remembered my order – and her mistake – and the meal came out just fine. I like this place.
Middle of the week, my host and I went out to dinner in West Didsbury at Green’s, arguably Manchester’s top vegetarian restaurant. There’s much to commend this place. Nice ambience, friendly staff: my friend had not quite reserved and not been totally specific about the number of diners either but a table was awaiting us all the same. (This was necessary: Greens is popular enough that it invites the question, “what recession?”) The wine list is relatively simple: we opted for a bottle of Nero d’Avola, damn perfect for such a cold evening, and especially for what we were eating. At £18 it represented a significant mark-up, but ordering wine in a restaurant is as much an art of knowing which wines on the list are inherently good value as worrying about the profit motive – and Nero d’Avola, even as it sweeps the western wine-drinking world, remains one of the best values out there. As for the food, it sounded better than it was. A starter of “deep-fried oyster mushrooms with Chinese pancakes, plum sauce and cucumber” was nice enogh, and my companion seemed abundantly happy with his goan curry main course. But my main, “roasted aubergine, beetroot and butter bean cottage pie,” was served so physically hot that I couldn’t touch it for about fifteen minutes. And almost inevitably, once I did finally get to taste (after my friend had finished his curry), it turned out that all flavor had been cooked out of the meal; I could have been eating just about anything. I mentioned this in crystal clear terms to our server. He responded, “I’ll let the boys in the back know,” with the kind of shrug-of-the-shoulders that suggested either he had no such intention, or that the boys in the back might meet me out front to have a go. I don’t mind returning to Green’s – the price is right and the intent is definitely there. But the so-called cottage pie is a definite no-no.
Back down in London for work week three, I returned to Mildred’s on Lexington Street, a place I first visited in the spring. Strictly vegetarian, widely vegan, with fresh organic juice and smoothies at the ready but also a very good wine and beer list on hand, Mildred’s offers all-day, low-stress, cafeteria style seating with restaurant quality food. There’s a daily vegan homemade soup (which I tucked straight into, given that I was staying in a flat with no heat or hot water), and an excellent “mushroom, porcini and ale pie served with mushy peas and chips” amongst the many mains, which I adored last time round. On this occasion though, I opted for a less bulky “tomato, aubergine, chickpea and green olive tagine served with flaked almond cous cous, flat bread and harissa.” What’s harissa you ask? So did I. I can’t remember. (Performs google search.) It’s a Tunisian hot chile sauce – though it was not remotely, or at least uncomfortably, spicy. In my two lunchtime visits to Mildred’s thus far, I haven’t found room for dessert (or time for booze), but I now know somewhere I can stop in at any time of day, for any food or drink at all. It’s my new West One fave.
That said, I didn’t want to head there two days in a row, so for a cheap lunch the next day I went online and found Beatroot on Berwick Street. Beatroot works buffet style – you order a box of various sizes from £4.20 to £6.20 and the staff fill it with anything you see and like the look of. It’s my tendency to over-order and over-experiment and I buried my box in shepherds pie, bean hot pot, tofu stir fry and vegan sausage rolls. I’m fully aware that I would have felt healthier, and probably more energetic through the afternoon, had I gone for any of the wonderful salads instead, but I was still dealing with the broken boiler back at the West Norwood flat, and I needed all the hot food I could get. This food, we are assured by Beatroot, is “made with natural ingredients and lots of care” though it is not exactly upscale. Nothing about Beatroot is upscale. Seating is shared. Music is loud. There is no toilet. (“But there is a public convenience on the corner,” they point out – and they’re right. There is. And it’s free.) Still, these are minor complaints – especially allowing that every one of Beatroot’s half-dozen desserts, including the chocolate dream cake and the carrot cake, are entirely vegan. This, too, will prove a regular stomping ground on future trips to town.
On my last night in London I hooked up with my college-age nephews at the Angel Islington, where I suddenly remembered from our Apocalypse reunion acoustic concert last year down the road at Filthy McNasty’s, that a couple of us had taken a stroll to Chapel Walk and stumbled upon the Indian Veg Bel Poori House. This unique café-restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat, entirely vegan (but for the mint sauce) buffet for just £3.95. You can help yourself to drinks from the fridge (Indian beers included) and pay on your way out. Trust is the name of the game here. So is compassion: the walls are festooned with medical and spiritual testimony towards a non-animal diet, including quotes from all manner of famous vegetarians. Of course, for £3.95 you can’t expect haute cuisine, and you certainly don’t get it. The fried bhajis and somosas and onion rings all looked a little dry for my liking (though in hindsight that might be from avoiding the deep frying ingredients of most battered British food), and most of the main dishes were excessively oily – I drained out the serving spoon before filling my plate. Plus, in a buffet environment, one has the temptation to return for seconds, which can play havoc on the stomach. Still, if you are my older nephew, new to the workforce and cash-poor as a result of start-up costs and starting salary, you’re going to be thrilled find somewhere like this within walking distance of home. I imagine he’ll be back there again and again. And so will I, whenever I find myself in Islington.
Finally, in Brighton to see Paul Weller (review here), three of us decided to celebrate our long-lasting friendship with a proper meal out at Terre a Terre, long considered one of Britain’s very best vegetarian restaurants and a place of which I have many fond memories. It’s still special. The menu is imaginative to the point of madness, the service is excellent, the wine list allows for 500ml carafes – perfect for a night like this when we only wanted a glass or two each – and the attention to detail is just about impeccable. But I was perhaps a little frustrated that, just like at Greens, and the Bhelpoori house, and the Thames Tandoori (not to mention all that fish, saveloys, sausages and such like that are a staple part of the British diet) several of our shared starters came fried in batter – as if nobody could possibly enjoy food that was undressed. Main courses were more creative, as you can see from the menu descriptions: my haggisn’t actually looked a lot less complex than it sounded, and though it seemed mildly short on subtle flavor at the time, and even looked a little small on the plate, when all was said and done I was absolutely stuffed, perfectly sated, and yet neither over-full or uncomfortable. That’s testimony to good food. The Italian Grillo white wine, lightly spicy and medium-bodied, proved ideal, albeit a little pricey for a carafe at £14.50. With tip, we were £27 a person, about the same as I paid at Green’s, and which seems therefore a benchmark price for a decent British vegetarian meal of two courses, wine and maybe coffee.
Terre a Terre provided a great meal, alongside the more casual dining at Mildred’s the best of my visit. But barely a week later, back in the Catskills, I found myself at Peekamoose, where the Hudson Valley Organic Farmers Vegetable Plate, unappetizing as it may have looked in writing, delivered exactly as promised: it took the freshest harvest vegetables (squash, spinach, beets and more), cooked each of them to perfection, and arranged them in architectural splendor over a sauce of fresh tomatoes and quinoa. There was no attempt to rewrite the rule book, to provide an essay in the form of a menu item. No experimenting for the sake of it. No covering vegetables in batter, or cooking the flavour out of them. The meal served, instead, to remind that fresh food is best tasted fresh. British vegetarian cuisine has come on leaps and bounds these past couple of decades, and veganism is no longer an awkward word, but simplicity remains the one ingredient the nation’s chefs are still resisting.