Veggiestan cookbook sends Glass on a meat-free mission

WHEN Sally Butcher’s vegetarian cookbook, Veggiestan, came out in 2011 some people asked her where this place was: to the east of Kyrgyzstan and just above Snackistan was her straight-faced reply when she felt mischievous. Persepolis, an ancient palace complex in Iran and the name of Sally’s  deli and café  in Peckham is also the name of her latest cookbook (published by Pavilion). The book is packed with great ideas, from an okra-based gumbo to the date-and-cardamon latte that has always been on the menu in her café but a guarded trade secret until now. Inspired by Persepolis, the hunt was on for vegetarian dining out in London.

Story_Persepolis cookbookPersepolis cookbook

Hidden deep in a Chancery Lane back alley redolent with Dickens associations, the cool-sounding name Vanilla Black sets the restaurant apart from this busy-busy part of town. So does the shabby chic décor and furnishings that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s themed television drama:  with brown leather banquettes, walls covered in old prints, bentwood chairs and low music. The menu is a little more startling; nothing here to reassure faint- hearted newbies to vegetarian culture. An insouciant disclaimer assures you there will be no pasta bakes, nutroast, veg curry or the like and indeed even the vocabulary of the menu lacks familiar terms – just ingredients with the occasional hint of how they are assembled.

The dishes are imaginative, each one a surprise when it appears:  a starter of crispy puy lentils and pureed sweet potato followed by tomato shortbread, sheep’s milk and broccoli, a fairly unique combination. These were in the nouvelle cuisine-sized  range –  lots of empty plate with artistically arranged ingredients in the centre – while desserts were vast and exceedingly biteworthy. My chocoholic standards were met and a bit more while the poached rhubarb, but not the pomegranate, tickled my companion’s childhood memories.

Story_Ethical eating at EthosEthical eating at Ethos

Reaching Ethos involves fighting your way down late night shopping in Oxford St so it comes as a relief to arrive and tumble into its canteen-like atmosphere. Tables line the walls and hide beneath birch trees ( real trunks with artificial leaves) and the grand buffet of main courses dominates one end of the room. Starters can be ordered before the buffet part of the meal and are by far the best of the night’s eating: seitan and broccoli on a bed of seaweed, tasty halloumi and vegetable skewers make a great start to the meal. The buffet is vast, ranges over several different cuisines, and it is tempting to load up  but since each plate is costed by its weight a better plan is to taste the food in little stages. Come here to meet your friends rather than propose marriage, a place for  sociability and feeling ethical.

Story_A spread at The GateA spread at The Gate

The Gate now has a third incarnation, joining the Islington and Hammersmith restaurants, and to judge by the crowd that was there on an inclement weekday evening in February it will prove just as successful. Its shopper-friendly location is close to Marble Arch and the place is hard to miss: standing on Seymour Place you can see, through the large windows, a dining space that looks inviting and informal. The food choices are the generic Gate ones so no surprises if you’ve been to one of the other two outlets; if new to the experience, expect a varied menu and the most detailed key to constituents you’re likely to find anywhere.

Storypic_White choclate desseret at The GateWhite chocolate
dessert at The Gate

Alerts to peanuts and gluten but also sulphur dioxide, eggs, milk, molluscs, mustard, sesame are all listed for each dish– but not the salt that was discernably present in the dip that came with the homemade bread. There is no skimping on quantity so any worries of non-vegetarians can be safely assuaged: there will be far more on their plates than salad leaves and tofu.

Story_Eneko's grand entranceEneko’s grand entrance

Life is never flawless because sometimes your companion is a devoted carnivore but the new  Eneko restaurant, at One Aldwych, makes you feel it could be. With its own posh entrance and polished copper staircase, bypassing the hotel lobby, and the first of two levels being a plush cocktail bar area, comfort is assured. Named after the famed Basque chef Eneko Atxa (three Michelin stars no less), with a protégé running the kitchen, prices here are reassuringly affordable.


Story_Inside Eneko at One AldwychInside Eneko at One Aldwych

This helps make the talo and beetroot tartare a perfect starter for two to share, followed by beans from Gernika  which are enlivened with piparrak peppers from the same region of Spain. The egalitarian menu is easy to follow, with dishes divided equally into fish, meat or vegetarian, the staff delightful and Spanish wines available by glass, carafe and bottle. Eneko is fun.


Story_Mandarin food at Pied a TerreMandarin food at Pied a Terre

Finding vegetarian menus in good restaurants in France is like searching for the Holy Grail but keep your feet on London’s earth and you’ll be singing hosannas at Pied à Terre. Situated at the cluttered end of Charlotte St, off Tottenham Court Rd, all is peace and quiet when you step inside: low ceiling, white tablecloths, artful ambience (crockery by artist Tim Head and an installation on a corner of one wall that non-meat eaters had best not inquire about), impeccable service – and the vegetarian tasting menu unfolding into a series of exquisite tastes. From the amuse-bouche to the petits fours, and everything in between, your taste buds will be pampered by, for example, the bodily warmth of a parmesan dumpling spiked with slivers of funky attitude from shavings of truffle grated at your table.

Storypic_White choclate desseret at The GateGauthier – Not Soho as we know it

The noisy hustle of Soho is another unlikely setting for a fine French restaurant with a vegetarian menu fit for a mandarin. You’ll only enter Gauthier after ringing the doorbell of a period townhouse graced with an old fireplace, soft carpet, plain white walls and an air of sedateness.

Story_Gauthier interiorGauthier interior

My carnivore friend agreed to partake in the vegan tasting menu and was bowled over by the alchemical transformations of humble vegetables into sexy and seductive presences on a plate and complex tastes in the mouth. The unassuming cauliflower, roasted to perfection, or  a Roscoff onion stuffed with a light potato “cream”, leave aftertastes that need Gauthier’s leisurely intervals between courses to fully applaud.


Story_Weekend brunch at KuPPWeekend brunch at KuPP

OK, it’s the weekend and a vegetarian brunch is called for, somewhere informal where preening is not required. Head over to Edgware Rd and canal-side KuPP where you’ll see the occasional rower sliding past on the water. KuPP may not be artisanal or hygee but it’s a cool place to hang out with friends and enjoy the chat and food over ‘bottomless’ refills of Czech beer, Aquavit cocktails or Bloody Mary. The veggie  smorgasbord is for two to share but if one of you wants animal protein  it would be easy to compromise by making up a shared meal from the “graze and share” section of the menu.

Vegetarians have never had it so good in London, with restaurants for spoiling yourself, for special occasions, for casual and informal meals with friends. A new food zeitgeist may be gradually taking shape, evoking Marvell’s lines in To My Coy Mistress:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

by Sean Sheehan

Veggiestan £22.50 can be purchased here