Category Archives: restaurant reviews

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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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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French fries with pepper

Morphine muso Mark Sandman sang it best: ‘oh-owwwww-oh! French fries with pepper’. Perhaps it goes against tradition to adorn your chips with pepper, proving that traditions are there to deviate from. Though Mrs Lomez cannot be sure of the late Mr Sandman’s veggie status, the pepper recommendation does not come from the palate of your average omnivore.

the talented mr sandman

Ah, the vegan staple. Especially when travelling and the traditional regional fare is built around consuming animals.  It’s not unusual to go out for a meal and find that the only veggie offering is a plate of chips. Such is the case in Portugal. You may not find much in the way of choice but you will always find two old reliables, salad and chips. A third reliable would be bread (sopped with olive oil) and a fourth would be the red wine that Sandman dreamed he would sit on the back porch and sing with.

Because of the ubiquity of salad, chips, bread and wine, olive oil too perhaps, these foods don’t identify themselves as most typifying the traditional of any particular cuisine. Yet they make up an international vegetarian greatest hits. What first comes to mind when you think of Portuguese food is fish, maybe some grilled sardines and fish stew, and let us not forget the custard-filled pasteis de nata. But the vegan is damned to eternal repetition of salad, chips, bread and wine, with peppered variations. How can vegans immerse themselves in the culture of a flesh-fascinated country? Only half-heartedly?

Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez tried a few veggie restaurants in Portugal, to balance out the fish overload. Paladar da Alma in Porto was joyously cheap for food which was tasty and almost totally vegan – hurrah! But was it traditional? Though visitors in the country, they knew enough to not expect a centuries-old habit of seitan. Down in Lisbon, The Green Room offered both meat and vegetarian dishes, all of a somewhat inoffensive internationalised flavour (or offensive, depending how sensitive your taste). The fact that both dietary persuasions were welcomed was exciting but as for the food itself, Mrs Lomez could have easily stomached the salad and chips while watching Dr Sin chomp ecstatically on grilled sardines at a more ‘traditional’ restaurant. At the exclusively veg, overpriced buffet (yes, an overpriced buffet!) at Terra – which somehow garnered a ‘must visit’ in the Lisbon Time Out guide, incredible given the number of superfluous foodie joints there – one dish appeared to be a rendition of something traditionally meaty, a sausage and bean stew. Replace the meat sausage with a vegetarian sausage and hey, even the vegans can eat it! The overriding flavour of this was of vegetarian sausage which Mrs Lomez somehow doubts is traditional.

Can you substitute the essential ingredients of a tradition and still honour it? Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals writes about the role of food in our stories but that we can always make new stories with different foods. We are always changing.

A wise vegan once said to Mrs Lomez, ‘you can always buy vegetables wherever you go’ and so vegan travelling is easy if you can fall back on preparing your own food. What you then miss out on is the experience of eating regional food, literally consuming culture. But how does the eager traveller come to a singular notion of culture in whichever country they seek to experience, to expose their ever-widening mind to? How many meat-eaters does it take to create a tradition? How many vegans?

Other traditions, such as bopping people on the head with inflated plastic hammers at Porto’s Festa de São João, are not centred around food and involve no real harm.

Until next time,

Mrs Lomez

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