|Vegan Heaven or Tofu Too Far?|
Penny Flood samples animal free food on North End Road
Although I’ve been a vegetarian for decades, I’ve never gone the whole hog and espoused veganism, there was always something too earnest about it, something a tad too austere and, ever so slightly, self satisfied. So it was a good job that I wasn’t wearing my glasses when the bus went past 222 Veggie and I didn’t see the small print that said 'vegan restaurant' because if I had, I would never have rounded up my two vegetarian friends for a night out, and I would have missed a treat.
The restaurant itself has none of the horrors I expect from a vegan restaurant – hard wooden benches you have to share with strangers, smug homilies on the menu about saving the planet, rather dull food and – heaven forefend – no alcohol. 222 Veggie Vegan is comfortable and cosy with a very interesting menu which, if I had to classify it, I’d call modern British vegan, and it’s licensed.
It’s actually a very grown-up menu with plenty to choose from – five starters and 10 main courses.
For our starters we chose avocado pomodoro (avocado with tomato sauce and vegan cream), bean and tofu pancake (black bean and tofu pate wrapped in a wholemeal pancake, topped with tomatoes and cashew cream sauce) and baked crispy mushrooms served on a salad with cocktail sauce. The black bean pancake was my choice, it was a funny sort of pancake, crispy rather than soft but it wasn’t like a nacho either, still the whole ensemble tasted fine.
We polished the lot off and sat back amazed that vegan food could be so good and classy without a drop of saturated fat.
There was plenty of time to reflect on what we’d just eaten because service is slow but, to be fair, it’s for the right reasons – all the food is cooked to order without the aid of a microwave. There’s a note at the top of the menu to warn you about longer preparation times, so you know what you’re in for, but it does mean you have time to get tipsy between courses, but hey, this was a girls’ night out.
Most of the drinks on offer are herbal teas but there is wine and lager, two of each and all organic. We had the white wine, a very drinkable Bordeaux Blanc for £10.50.
Our main courses were seitan stroganoff, chef’s salad, and broccolini di Parma. Seitan, which was new to all of us, was slices of wheat gluten, an ingredient which is almost completely tasteless so it absorbs all the other flavours it’s cooked with. This made it ideal for the stroganoff which came with mushrooms, caramelised onions and pepper cubes in herby cashew cream sauce with brown basmati rice. Chef’s salad was seasonal vegetables, greens, avocado chunks, asparagus, potatoes, sun dried tomatoes, artichokes marinated with extra virgin olive dressing and the brocolini was fresh pancakes stuffed with tofu cottage cheese, broccoli, and pimento sauce with baby potatoes.
We were a little worried about the tofu cheese as, anybody who’s every tried vegan cheese will tell you, it can be awful. We asked the waitress who assured us that it wouldn’t taste awful and she was right! I’m happy to say we finished all our main courses off and ordered more wine.
222 Veggie Vegan is run by Ben Asamani, a professional chef with a strong track record in vegetarian and vegan cooking. A man after my own heart, he believes healthy food doesn’t have to be rough and unattractive.
When he set up the restaurant, he says, his aim was to create dishes that look good and taste good while doing you good, and I think he’s bang on. Refined food, deep fat frying and anything with additives are right out all together it’s a working formula because 222 Veggie Vegan has won a clutch of awards, often beating larger and more famous establishments.
Portions are generous and after eating all that we were actually very full and, strictly speaking didn’t need dessert but (a) this was research and (b) we were so impressed with what we’d eaten already that we felt like eating more. To that end and with great anticipation we ordered chocolate cake, apple crumble and tofu cheesecake all with ice cream - vegan ice cream made with no milk cream or eggs.
The prettiest of these was the apple crumble, which came with a globe of blueberry ice-cream in a delicate shade of lilac imploding gently as it melted over the big, golden hot crumble - lovely.
The tofu cheesecake was our first disappointment, it was a bit too chewy to pass as cheesecake and while it tasted OK, it felt wrong. Perhaps if they’d called it something else, tofu caramel flan perhaps, our expectations would have been different, but it wasn’t a major upset and we finished it anyway. Top of the class was the chocolate cake which tasted exactly like chocolate cake should and you’d never guess it was made without milk, butter, eggs or cream. Ditto the ice-cream.
All the dishes are coded: v) Vegan (w) Wheat Free (wo) Wheat Free Option (o) Organic so you know what you’re eating, which is vital for people with allergies. If there’s nothing to meet a particular dietary need, Ben says to let him know and he’ll do his best to create something to suit.
The cost for the whole meal including the wine, plus two extra glasses and a bottle of sparkling water was a very reasonable £70. We could have eaten for a lot less if we hadn’t been so greedy.
At lunch time there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for £7.50 which is very useful if you’re in the North End Road and starving. And you don’t have to be vegan, I believe even the staunchest carnivores would be impressed by the wonderful things Ben does with fruit and vegetables.
Was I converted to veganism? No, but Ben’s lovely restaurant has made me feel differently about it. Would I go back? Most certainly, as soon as possible.
May 18, 2010