THE ACORN, BATH LE GAVROCHE, MAYFAIR, LONDON
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. co.uk; 01225 446059; lunch dishes £12.95; three-course dinner £38.95
Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, London W1K 7QR; www.le-gavroche. co.uk; 020 7408 0881