Heavenly Vegetarian

May 24, 2012

My first year in London as a student was punctuated by a series of bad restaurant experiences.  I heavily relied on Time Out to guide me to the best spots, but sometimes I just wanted to pop into a nearby venue without the fuss of researching.  Well, if one thing is for sure, then it’s that London is a city where you must research before you eat.  And that’s not just to avoid ‘paying through the nose’ for food that looks like it’s fresh out of the microwave.  It’s to make sure you eat some of the best food on this planet, because London is home to some of the finest restaurants and most interesting cuisine I have ever experienced…if you know where to look.

Now, it’s a well known fact that Britain is a meat and potatoes loving country.  People also like their beer, their beer battered fish and their fatty chips.  And there’s a time and a place for that kind of eating in moderation (so long as you don’t leave out the mushy peas – my all time favourite British classic). But there is no time or place for poorly prepared foods that cost more than making a freshly made meal at home.  It’s a situation I want everyone to avoid.

Britain is also home to many vegetarians and it’s not hard to find a vegetarian selection – but beware.  What you might deem vegetarian in California could manifest itself quite differently here.  Most vegetarians I know here, while avoiding acidic meat, are not necessarily making up for that with a well-balanced alkaline diet.  Many abruptly gave up meat sometime around the Mad Cow scare, but haven’t dedicated enough time to understanding the complex balance of a heathy vegetarian diet or the science of cooking beans and pulses in a digestible way.   They tend to eat a lot of cheese and potatoes and this, invariably, is how vegetarian options will appear on menus:  starchy numbers consisting of Britain’s favorite vegetables: potatoes, peas, and carrots.  I have one friend I’ve deemed an ‘Italiatarian’ – she thrives on a meatless diet of fine, Italian-inspired pasta and heavily-cooked vegetable dishes (which she makes with the utmost of love, care, and precision so I let her get away with it!)  Her safest bet when it comes to choosing a restaurant where she can eat?  A good Italian venue!  But a former vegetarian myself, I was determined to find some inventive veggie cuisine in London and turns out I didn’t have to look far!

After a few trials and errors, I’ve managed to locate some great places for those nights when your veggie friend is in town or when you’ve overdone it at a steak dinner or Sunday roast the day before and want to give your gut a break.  The photos in this post are from my favourite vegetarian venue in London: The Gate.  Tucked away on a side street in Hammersmith and nestled above a quaint courtyard, The Gate is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.  It is a peaceful oasis (less quiet at night when they turn the volume up on the tunes) in busy London.  It’s located half way between the HMV Apollo and Riverside Studios so you can pair your veggie-tastic meal with a popular show or night of good cinema if you plan ahead.  I hear they’re opening a new location across from Sadlers Wells (arguably the best dance venue in London) in Islington, not far from Jamie’s Italian (perfect spot for those Italiatarians out there but not a vegetarian restaurant!).

If you’re up for the hustle and bustle of Soho, you can check out Mildred’s – another inventive vegetarian venue popular amongst the celebrity crowd (I had my ultimate celebrity encounter with Thom Yorke from Radiohead here), but with the queue to match.  You can’t make reservations and the space is small so be prepared to wait for a table and arrive early if you can to beat the weeknight crowds.  Not far from here on Wardour street, is a more informal venue called Vitao, formerly Vita Organic.  When I worked in Soho, this was my favourite lunch spot, hosting a huge selection of macrobiotic, live food meals and a creative list of beverages using all kinds of juices and nut milks.  This is a great place if you’re eating alone and just need a quick fix.

If you’re in the Covent Garden area and up for a stroll down Neal’s Street, then you’ll soon find yourself in a colorful courtyard of healthy treasures – Neal’s Yard.  Here you can find the delectable Wild Food Cafe, which features not only vegetarian but also deliciously raw selections (the olive and shitaki mushroom burger with coconut cheese is delicious as is the selection of raw chocolate made on site – check out the machine by the door!).

En route to Neal’s Yard, you’ll find Food For Thought – a teeny tiny venue well-known by all as a great place for lunch or early dinner.  There’s limited seating downstairs but sharing tables with strangers is normal and meals are usually eaten in haste so it doesn’t take long for a spot to become free.  If you’re lucky, you’ll nab the cove at the back – perfect for a party of two with a  bit more time to spare.  The best deal is the full plate of one of the dishes of the day accompanied by a generous salad.  If it’s a nice day, visit the ‘take-away’ counter upstairs and eat your meal outside on the Seven Dials pillar

In Northeast London, I’ve heard Manna is incredible, but I’ve yet to try it!  If you’re planning a day on Primrose Hill and a trip to the flagship Triyoga Studios for a class, add a visit here to your agenda and let me know how it goes!

I’ve mentioned Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall earlier – this is man I’ve previously seen butcher animals from his backyard (River Cottage) but whose most recent TV show, River Cottage Veg Everyday, champions interesting and inventive ways of preparing beautiful vegetarian meals!  He’s done a great job in reminding people that vegetarian food is anything but dull and the best medium to test one’s cooking creativity!

So these are just a few places to get you started on your vegetarian journey around London (I’ll do another post for those Italiatarians and omnivores like me too…).  The next post is on the topic of Markets in London – where even more veggie options await you!  So the topic will continue…

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