Gourmet vegetarian: what does it mean? This may sound an oxymoron to some ears. But it depends who’s doing the cooking.
At a three-star restaurant (according to the AA Restaurant Guide) in Birmingham, which has both veg and non-veg menus, a vegan main consisted of a depression of quinoa and lentils, accompanied by tufts of carrot and broccoli arranged geometrically to the side. Peculiar, in a way, that a non-vegetarian, presumably, would think this meal as satisfying to Mrs Lomez as the cut of ox was to Dr Sin. The focus is on the protein component, much as a meaty dish would have a slab of animal flesh as its centre.
It’s a little insulting to pay £30 for a main comprising ingredients that collectively could not have come to more than £1. Vegetarian gourmet = massive mark-up. And where does the ‘gourmet’ or fine dining element come in? Boiling a couple of tablespoons of lentils and grains is hardly something your typical veg person has never tried at home. The message, simply, is that vegans should be happy they’re even being catered for outside of specialist vegetarian restaurants. Eat the lentils and smile glibly.
It is curious how vegetables are relegated to the margins of the gourmet. Mrs Lomez believes this is not helped by cooking shows such as Masterchef and the culinary tradition they refuse to critique: meat-and-two-veg (translated by chefs to protein-and-two-veg in veg speak). Amateur cooks around the world are told that to be a professional you need only learn how to cook meat at just the right temperature and for just long enough to kill off the bacteria living in the decaying shank. Gourmet cooking appears to be less a flight of imagination than a health and safety effort, ensuring consumers do not get food poisoning. So when it comes to veg fine dining, it is best left to someone who knows how to handle vegetables.
This is why exclusively vegetarian restaurants are always going to be the best bet for veggies looking for something out of the ordinary. Meat-eaters just cannot make a vegetable the focus of attention on a plate, they don’t know how to assemble a dish without the traditional fleshy centrepiece. Their first compulsion is to throw four different cheeses at the problem (of the vegetarian diner), or perhaps to steal the eggs of an unsuspecting duck or quail. So what can be done for the vegan? Lentils, obviously. How far-sighted was Neil from The Young Ones in predicting the enduring influence of the humble pulse on modern British cuisine.
That said, one of the most flavoursome encounters Mrs Lomez has had with a lentil happened at Zeffirellis at Ambleside in the Lake District of England. A lentil patty atop sliced potato and a red sauce, very fine indeed, served out of a kitchen that does a good pizza too. Zeffirellis has a sister (or brother) restaurant, Fellinis, which presents fine dining with a ‘Vegeterranean’ twist. It is not unusual for visiting omnivores to not even realise the food is exclusively veg and, happily for the vegans among us, not so reliant on dairy produce. Saf and Vanilla Black in London are two more exponents of delectable veg gourmet. While saf uses vegetables to create dishes that don’t look like vegetables, Vanilla Black unabashedly served up mushrooms that looked just like mushrooms and the taste: exquisite!
It is a common tactic of the secret society of vegans to invite unsuspecting omnivores round for dinner then spring a totally vegan meal on them without warning. This is also a successful tactic of the best veg fine dining restaurants. Omnivores don’t even realise what is happening until after they have licked their plate clean.
Mrs Lomez would be interested to hear others’ experiences of fine dining, be they exclusively veg, at an omnivorous establishment or just plain expensive.