Veg out in style

Shilpa Gi­na­tra finds the best places for veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan fine din­ing in Lon­don

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL- BAG -

It’s far from an open se­cret, but strolling along the Thames Path is surely the most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated ac­tiv­ity in Lon­don. With small in­ter­rup­tions, be it a bridge, apart­ment block or mem­bers’ club, the river­side walk stretches for 184 miles from the depths of the Cotswolds to the in­dus­trial sites of East Lon­don. All along, the sense of tran­quil­lity that per­vades is medicine for the heav­ing mile- a- minute city, even in its busiest junc­tion along the South­bank, which of­fers a dizzy­ing amount of must- see shows in its un­of­fi­cial Eu­ro­pean cen­tre for arts on one side, and the calm­ing river with views of Lon­don’s un­mis­tak­able still sky­line on the other. Glo­ri­ous.

Lon­don’s sec­ond most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated ac­tiv­ity is on the other side of the spec­trum, within the con­fines of four walls. It’s veg­e­tar­ian fine din­ing, and it’s found in the upper floors of im­pos­ing build­ings, or tucked away on a res­i­den­tial street, or in rooms through the an­nals of ho­tels.

Cos­mopoli­tan Lon­don has al­ways had strong ca­sual of­fer­ings, like the in­sti­tu­tion that is Mil­dred’s, and the buf­fet- style Tibits on Hed­don Street. But veg­e­tar­i­ans, re­duc­etar­i­ans, flex­i­tar­i­ans and ve­g­ans are on the in­crease – lat­est stats sug­gest up to a quart er of evening meals i n t he UK are meat- free and even KFC will in­tro­duce veg­e­tar­ian burg­ers to its UK fast food joints next year. Crit­i­cally, the trend is seep­ing up­wards.

A new sur­vey from hos­pi­tal­ity re­cruiter The Change Group found that half the fine din­ing restau­rants in Lon­don now have veg­e­tar­ian op­tions, a num­ber which be­lies the point that they’re now care­fully con­sid­ered and it’s no longer the finick­ity op­tion stuck on the menu as an af­ter­thought ( the gluten- free diet has in­her­ited that bur­den in­stead).

Un­til now, San Fran­cisco held the crown for meat- free fine din­ing with the likes of Mil­len­nium and Green Res­tau­rant in its midst, but these days, veer off the Thames Path and a veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan tast­ing menu won’t be far away. Most likely, it will be in a res­tau­rant that cater for meat- eaters and non- meat eaters alike – a move in the right direc­tion, es­pe­cially for those of us who have zero chance of pris­ing a din­ner party away from scal­lops and steak.

So praise be that up­scale veg­gie op­tions can be found in Pollen Street So­cial ( Jason Atheron’s buzzy Miche­lin- starred venue), Asia de Cuba ( think chilli- rubbed tofu and black bean em­panadas) and Alain Du­casse a t T h e D o r c h e s t e r : t h e t h r e e Miche­lin- starred res­tau­rant from the chef who’s fa­mously fond of meat- free op­tions for eco­log­i­cal rea­sons.

Top of the tian for mixed- menu din­ing is Gau­thier Soho. It’s found unas­sum­ingly in a cosy town­house in Soho, the heart of Lon­don’s res­tau­rant scene. Five years ago it served 20kg of foie gras ev­ery week as a high- end French res­tau­rant. Then chef- pa­tron Alexis Gau­thier had a Peta- prompted epiphany and turned ve­gan, and is slowly lead­ing its menu to the same. Now, 75 per cent of its menu is plant- based, with tra­di­tional op­tions like chicken and veni­son still present and pop­u­lar along­side in­ven­tions like “faux gras”: a rich, meaty mix­ture of lentils, wal­nuts, shal­lots and mush­rooms topped with ve­gan but­ter.

Its ve­gan tast­ing menu, Les Plantes (£ 70/¤ 80), is full of such in­ter­est­ing op­tions: my visit to its front room- style din­ing area last year rounded off with a yolky mango coulis fill­ing en­cased in a ve­gan meringue ball made with aquafaba. A medal for who­ever stumbled on the fact that chick­pea brine is a per­fect re­place­ment for egg whites in this in­stance.

Served over the course of a long, lin­ger­ing evening, the eight- course menu is a tes- tament to the idea that while most tal­ented chefs can do great things with chicken, it takes a spe­cial level of piz­zazz to turn ve­gan food into nou­velle cui­sine.

Yet the breadth of op­tions in Lon­don means that high- end ve­gan din­ing can also dial back the cre­ativ­ity and let the ingredients do the talk­ing. That’s the ethos in Theo Ran­dall at the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal. Set back in a quiet corner where Mar­ble Arch meets the five- star ho­tel thor­ough­fare of Park Lane, its rus­tic Ital­ianess lends it­self to plenty of veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan op­tions – its ve­gan menu has been around for about 10 years. The in­clu­sion was a nat­u­ral step given he’s a River Café alum­nus, he ex­plains.

“Veg­eta­bles were a big part of the cook­ing there, and it’s the same here; it’s all about sim­plic­ity where less is more,” he says, as home­made breads slathered with slow- roasted dat­terini toma­toes ar­rive at the ta­ble, prov­ing his point. “We like to cater for ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans, but we’ve also found peo­ple eat much more veg­e­tar­ian food with­out notic­ing. They don’t come in with the mind­set that they’ll have a fish starter and a beef main. The ravi­oli with squash and ri­cotta cheese is one of our big­gest sellers. Then they might have a veg­e­tar­ian risotto or sfor­mato: twice- baked souf­flé.” He notes that his global clien­tele – i nc l udi ng many r e s i dent s o f t he £ 300- a- night In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel – are spoilt for choice in Lon­don, which has only pushed the stan­dard and va­ri­ety he of­fers.

“Gone are the days where you have one tast­ing menu. Lon­don is full of restau­rants, and be­ing in the cen­tre, you have to at­tract a large crowd. But Lon­don has al­ways been open- minded. We have great pro­duce here and the cui­sine of the UK is in­ter­na­tional. Cities like Paris or Rome won’t have as many vari­a­tions of In­dian food, Chi­nese or Mid­dle East­ern.”

In­deed, veg­etable- for­ward eth­nic cuisines play a key part in lux­ury Lon­don din­ing. As those who know Atul Koc­char’s culi­nary alchemy from Ananda can pre­dict, May­fair’s Benares is beau­ti­fully burst­ing with i ntense flavours, even since he stepped down as chef- pa­tron in Au­gust.

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