The Oldie - - CONTENTS - James Pem­broke

The bril­liant co­me­dian Jo Brand once ap­peared on a celebrity ver­sion of Masterchef. When asked what she was cook­ing by the jaunty pre­sen­ter, La Brand winced ‘Veg­e­tar­ian pie'. ‘Oh, re­ally,' he chirruped, ‘what's in that?' Wearily, she replied, ‘Veg­e­tar­i­ans.'

In the last war, 83,000 peo­ple reg­is­tered as veg­gies, so that they could swap their meat al­lowance for ex­tra eggs. There are now four mil­lion Brits who won't eat any­thing with a face. Back in 1961, our most fa­mous veg­gie res­tau­rant self-dep­re­cat­ingly sold its first nut cut­let un­der the ban­ner of Cranks, know­ing the name would chime well with a na­tion whose meat ra­tion had only been lifted seven years pre­vi­ously. Yet veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants have al­ways been with us. In 1900, Lon­don boasted 34 ‘Pythagorean' restau­rants, of­ten in for­mal sur­round­ings with the oblig­a­tory eight cour­ses at din­ner.

So his­tory was on my wife's side when she in­sisted we have din­ner at the Acorn, the new veg­e­tar­ian res­tau­rant in Bath, on the for­mer site of De­muth's, which was also veg­e­tar­ian. We took our svelte friends James and Claire, after as­sur­ing them it was listed in Miche­lin. Even they looked obese com­pared with the rest of the ema­ci­ated clien­tele. One fam­ily nearly fainted when they stood up from their table too quickly. While hand­ing out our menus, the wait­ress ex­plained, ‘Did you know we went ve­gan a month ago?' There was panic in the ranks. But for a quick round of rhubarb Mar­ti­nis, we might have beat a hasty re­treat.

We or­dered all four starters to share, among them the Crankily-named ‘some old don­key car­rots cooked slowly and then fire-charred'. Each dish ex­tracted more flavour from the plant world than I have ever known. First prize of the main cour­ses went to the gar­lic dhal with onions and fried rice frit­ters with lime gel and a lime foam, but fol­lowed closely by the roast fen­nel with a fen­nel, white bean and co­coa but­ter paté, and a squash risotto. Yes, they pile flavour on flavour, and it re­ally works. The next morn­ing, I

woke not feel­ing in the least full, for pretty much the first time ever.

The best res­tau­rant in Bri­tain? It's Le Gavroche, and it has been for all its 51 years, first in Lower Sloane Street, and then in Brook Street since 1981. Of course, it's ex­pen­sive, but you will rel­ish and savour ev­ery penny. I have only been twice in the past ten years, each time for a Big Treat oc­ca­sion, and I would have hap­pily stayed in for a month, liv­ing off the Acorn's dahl, to pay the £100-a-head bill. Al­bert and Michel Roux had each been chefs to the Caza­let and Roth­schild fam­i­lies, who backed their bold ven­ture to serve clas­sic French cui­sine, in­tro­duc­ing dishes and in­gre­di­ents, such as veal kid­neys, not seen since Es­coffier.

In the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties, the brothers got up at 4am to buy the day's fare at Smith­field, Covent Gar­den and Billings­gate. Al­bert's wife, Mon­ica, used to cross the Chan­nel two or three times a week to ex­change salmon and game for foie gras, Bresse poul­try and truf­fles.

And why is it so bril­liant? It's not just the peer­less menu, which only changes three or four times a year; it's the most friendly res­tau­rant in Lon­don. Un­til his re­tire­ment, the maître d', Sil­vano, would visit ev­ery table. It is now Michel Jr's role, and he savours it. Book for your next big an­niver­sary. They have a veg­e­tar­ian menu.

The Acorn, 2 North Pa­rade Pas­sage, Bath BA1 1NX; www.acorn­restau­rant.; 01225 446059; lunch dishes £12.95; three-course din­ner £38.95

Le Gavroche, 43 Up­per Brook Street, Lon­don W1K 7QR; www.le-gavroche.; 020 7408 0881

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