Veg out in style
Shilpa Ginatra finds the best places for vegetarian and vegan fine dining in London
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.