Category Archives: places to eat

Vegans Anonymous International

(Whereupon our heroes, having stumbled into San José and enduring a sleepless night at the campsite thanks to drunk and disagreeable neighbours, pack the tent quickly and head up the east coast of Spain.)

The chairs are hiding under pastel green coverlets. The yellow paint on the walls is curdling into a sour (non-dairy) cream. The interior is dim because the curtains are closed, even though it is a bright sunny day outside in Madrid. Welcome to vegans anonymous international.

If a building can show emotion, this one would have blushed an embarrassed shade of crimson. This particular type of vegan restaurant (on the other end of the spectrum to the ‘look, it’s organic and o so funky!’ variety) does not want to draw attention to itself. Like the hermit crab, it shuffles along with the moral burden of veganism on its back like a giant house and retracts back into its shell when prodded, lights off and shutters down. It will take you hours to find, as all you have to go on is the local typewritten expat community newsletter of 1995 listing two establishments where veggies can go without fear or shame. The other one has closed down and this one is in hiding. You will pass it once, backtrack and pass it three more times before stopping in front and saying to yourself, ‘this has got to be it’, prising open the door and, as first impressions sink in, reminding yourself of the time you have invested in finding the place. This is the only reason you stay.

Vegaviana serves traditional dishes, a more interesting offering than international vegan fusion, albeit on the gloopy side and, as described, in surroundings that are almost too insecure to show themselves in public. After this experience, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez decide not to seek out the other veggie places in Madrid, especially as they find delicious tapas on the well-trodden tourist trail, pimientos del padron and tomato salad two favourite dishes. Big Sur gives them a taste of the southern delights yet to come: salmorejo (a chunkier gazpacho padded with bread, sometimes served with jamon and manchego) and a dish of chickpeas and spinach with cumin, two dishes they would encounter many times in Andalucía. They concern themselves with hunting down craft beer instead. El Pedal sundowners were had in Madrid (the sun still reasonably high at this time), take-away bottles were bought at Lupulópolis in Seville after sampling in-house (lúpulo seems to have something to do with hops), The Market Craft Beer in Valencia was returned to for more of their Tyris brews, and Kaelderkold in Barcelona welcomed them back many times to try the rotating drops on tap.

Heading south into Cordoba, they seek out Amaltea, an organic restaurant with separate veg and meat menus, so that Mrs Lomez could have a decent meal. The options for veg are, again, inoffensive international along the lines of stir fry, seitan and salad. Mrs Lomez is feeling fairly desperate for a grain by this time, not realising they are encroaching upon a vast swathe of Moorish-influenced cous cous territory, but is ultimately disappointed by a standard couscous with roasted veg. Dr Sin, meanwhile, has an organic leg of lamb with some kind of chutney and vegetables, which purportedly is the best meal up to this point of the journey. In Seville, chickpeas and spinach is the order of the day at a restaurant near their shitty pension which serves great tapas and superb house wine, and which they return to. In Granada, the best food is served complimentary with a glass of wine, and here the hunt for craft beer morphs into a wine bar crawl. Don’t be tempted by the supposedly north African flavours at dry restaurants and shisha bars; Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez are sucked in by an ‘all vegetarian’ restaurant serving fish, only to find it a tourist trap of the least appetising kind.

They drive on into paella territory, which at its furthest reaches is found at the seafront restaurants of San José. Through dry desert landscapes of red rock formations and into the white-canvassed, alien expanse of greenhouses growing tomatoes for Europe, they eventually come to the sea. Vegan-friendly salads with asparagus and other vegetable delights are easy to find in ostensibly fish restaurants. Salmorejo gives way to gazpacho and vegetarian paella appears on most menus. The difficulty is that most paellas are made for two but as it is still off-peak season, the last restaurant on the beach-side strip is willing to accommodate the Sin-Lomez’s divergent requirements.
greenhouses of southern Spain

Their adventures at vegetarian restaurants had so far brought more joy to Dr Sin than Mrs Lomez and had not strayed far from ‘international vegan’. Mrs Lomez’s appetite for ‘traditional’ Spanish fare is far from quelled. Then they arrive at La Nova Ermita in Valencia after a long day’s drive, exhausted and famished. The menú del día consists of a very generous three starters (!creamy soup! mussels! fried whitefish!), a main and fruit, coffee and beer. The options for main include a mushroom risotto, of the enoki variety and with a hint of saffron. The search for traditional Spanish vegan has come to a satisfying conclusion. And they return two days later to an even greater feast, having given advance vegan warning. To start, Mrs Lomez has lightly fried eggplant ‘chips’, arranged in a Yahtzee tower, and for main a vegan paella, at a very generous serving to boot. This is humbly presented, loving and delicious food, with focused yet subtle flavour and without gastro pretension.

They cannot surpass this menú del día in any of the multitude of hip spots, veg or otherwise, in Barcelona, though they are staying right in the middle of the veg zone: Veg Garden, super cheap seitan/tofu/veg burgers, salads and juices, which has queues of omnivores lining up outside on a Saturday night; and Juicy Jones for more of the same though not as cheap and housed in a colourful yet somehow sour socialist painted cooperative cafe. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian strain: anarchist lite with distrusting, standoffish staff. It is not always easy to identify with such a place. But it is nice to see two young boys here of their own volition, choosing vegetarian over multinational and factory farmed. Next door is a newly opened ‘ball’ place, Atubola, akin to a gourmet Maoz, which offers a couple of veg options more than the usual chickpea (not falafel) ball, and serves biodynamic/organic/eco/preservative-free wines, poured with a touch of disdain for customers who think eating this way will make any difference to anything. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian, though the bio/eco veneer was evidently just a marketing strategy.

But at least these unremarkable restaurants give the diner the peace of mind that they are consuming non animal-derived meals. Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez were drawn in by the bright kitsch decor of Vietnamese Bun Bo Raval and Mexican Rosa del Raval on Carrer dels Angels, similarly kitted in hot pinks, ice blues and evidently owned by the same people. To the dismay of vegetarian diners, on Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez’s second visit to the Mexican the informative waiter informs that all the rice is cooked in chicken stock and so the dishes marked vegetarian on the menu that contain rice (most of them) are in fact not vegetarian at all. Veggies be warned and say something to the kitchen about this deception, which is so wrong as to be malicious. It reminds Mrs Lomez of The Cous Cous Club in Amsterdam where she expressly asked if the meal was vegan, which the chef affirmed, and then told her after the meal that butter had been forked all the way through. This was the difficulty Mrs Lomez had been warned about before coming to Spain, of seemingly veg dishes being cooked in meat stock, though a place that presents itself as hip and hep to the times, with V symbols scattered across the menu, was the last place she expected to find it. And Australia too is turning out to be a veggie minefield: back in Perth post-le grand tour, trendy new dumpling house Darlings Supper Club marks dishes vegetarian that contain oyster sauce. Deception, thy name is hipster.

And you, dear reader, have you been fooled by restaurateurs that you’re eating vegetarian when it turns out you are not?

On the next stage of le grand tour, with Bessie the blue Nissan Micra still intact after traversing Spain, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez catch the ferry to Civitavecchia destined for adventure in Italy …

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Do you know the way to San José (in Spain)?

To begin, a vegan confession: in their first two weeks of travelling Spain and France, Mrs Lomez has broken several times, mostly with full knowledge of doing so but sometimes just hopeful ignorance. The culprits were: a mushroom tart pintxos in San Sebastián (knowingly but hopefully), a bite of home-made chocolate torte containing eggs from the free-roaming chooks next door (knowingly), a bite of pintxos with goat’s cheese in Burgos (knowingly), a taste of a cream cheese ball in Burgos (knowingly), half a tortilla slice in Burgos (knowingly), and a wild mushroom risotto that just may have been cooked with milk or cream (but hopefully not). True, it should be easy enough to check the ingredients of a dish when ordering and it is not because her Spanish is lacking, though it is much to Mrs Lomez’s shame that she is not fluent in her supposedly native tongue.

These lapses are neither reckless submissions nor sneaky deviations; however, a confession seems apt. Mrs Lomez breaks her own rules when on holiday but having permitted herself so, she has learned that she has no urge to go back to the dark side. It may be because the rich dairy flavours overwhelm all other taste sensations. Or it may be the mental irk at tasting again something that is so long unfamiliar. Dairy is often the last to go when transitioning to a totally plant-based diet – could it also be the first to be reinstated when sliding back along the dietary continuum? Or is it simply the vociferous influence of the omnivorous Dr Sin, without whom it is likely we would not have uncovered vegan surprises where we least expected to find them, but also, let it be said, who goads the herbivore into eating something in all other circumstances she would not.

Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez took to the pintxos of the north with mucho gusto, even finding a couple of veg surprises which required little handling to be made vegan: the onion marmalade with sundried tomato and slice of cheese (remove the cheese before eating), the champignon tart with flaky shortbread (best not to think about the possibility of butter), battered courgette slices with a sliver of jamon (siphon off to Dr Sin before consuming). And then olives are freely available, and many times even free.

Before heading off, Mrs Lomez was told by Spaniards and non-Spaniards alike that eating out would be difficult and she was prepared for patatas bravas and ensalata at every meal. Ensalata mixta comes with eggs and tuna but they are ordered only one or two times before remembering to order sin étun y sin huevos. The ever reliable salad companion, fried potatoes, is found everywhere and, again, after a couple of errors in our trials, we remember to order sin mayonesa. But there are other vegetables making surprise guest appearances: champinones in a garlic sauce, pimientos del padron, and parrillada de verduras – all totally vegan delights.

In France, heading east with a stop in Carcassone, Dr Sin reportedly had the best baked mussels ever while Mrs Lomez had a very generous serving of salad (again). No problems ordering pizza without cheese, though the results are far from appetising in Anduze but all good in Aigues-Mortes. They were driving in asparagus season — a hefty handful of green spears and strawberries galore at any of the many roadside veg stalls.

Without any cooking utensils, their campsite meals were thrown together salads with olive or tomato tapenade on pane, with baguette and spread again in the mornings. The vegetables this side of the channel are gorgeous (as are the cured meats and cheeses, Dr Sin will tell you): avocado, spinach, tomato, lettuce, spring onion and artichoke at markets in San Sebastián and in Carcassone.

Heading west back into Spain, they stopped at St Jean de Luz and had galettes at a tiny little place called Xabi, filled with a chatty and friendly crowd. They weren’t quite sure what they were ordering but the maitre’d understood the vegan requirements and adapted the veg dish to suit. Out came a huge tortilla wrap full of lettuce and sundried tomatoes for Mrs Lomez and a warm mince wrap for Dr Sin, unexpectedly just what was needed after a long day of driving.

Accompanying all of this is delicious local vino rouge y vino tinto (no vino rosso till we start speaking italiano!). In Burgos everybody drinks wine from Ribera del Douro, south of La Rioja. Either/or, at €1.50 a glass, which is, it must be pointed out, cheaper than mineral water, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez were easily persuaded to try a few from all regions.

Their last stop before heading into Madrid was El Burgo de Osma. Skipping breakfast the two were ready for an early lunch by 1400 hours and here they tried their first menú del dia at the Capitol restaurant on the plaza. The primero menu had a lot of vegetables and beans — asparagus, cauliflower — though most with a little jamon and cheese for good measure. It was here that the risotto con setas (wild mushrooms) was had; perhaps a little on the creamy side but who can really say? In the evening they returned for hongos guisados, a delicious dish solely of mushrooms. El Burgo turned out to be a bit of a local foodie’s haven, with locally brewed beer (Arevaka) going down a treat.

Hasta luego!

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The lentil: gourmet or gormless?

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.

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