Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gaztronomy Top Ten 2007

My wife and I love eating out. Since becoming vegetarian 15 or so years ago, my diet (believe it or not) has expanded as I found new ingredients and flavours to replace the "meat and two veg" diet that I had been brought up on.

Over the last few years the vegetarian food in restaurants has improved no end. No longer is the ubiquitous vegetable lasagne the only choice available, many restaurants are now offering exciting and tasty meat-free meals as part of their menu.

Some of the top chefs now offer amazingly imaginative and tasty food now in their restaurants and this is a list of my favourites that I visited in 2007.

1. Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons
The afternoon we spent at Raymond Blanc's two Michelin Star restaurant was superb. The food and the setting were spectacular and it was wonderful to go back there to cook on one of their courses.

2. La Ginestra
I visited this organic restaurant during the course I did in Tuscany. Having previously toured the farm, it was wonderful to eat their home grown produce at their restaurant.

3. Thackerays
The best restaurant in Tunbridge Wells, no question. The food was imaginative and the service was great.

4. Boxwood Cafe
A Gordon Ramsay restaurant that has a vegetarian menu? And an impressive one at that. You'd better believe it!

5. Neal Street
Sadly, Antonio Carluccio's flagship restaurant has now closed, leaving a big hole in Covent Garden. I visited it just before it closed and had a fabulous meal there.

6. Locanda Locatelli
This is my wife's (who doesn't suffer from the same meat-free affliction that I have...) current favourite restaurant. There's not a lot of veggie stuff on the menu, but what there is, is fab. The atmosphere and service make this a cut above the rest.

7. Raj Pavillion
I think this is the best Indian restaurant in Tunbridge Wells. It has a really varied menu and the service when we went was great.

8. Terre a Terre
Brighton's no 1 veggie restaurant really shows what you can do with veggie food.

9. Carluccio's
For a chain of restaurants, Carluccio's is superb. The food and good service are consistant across all the branches I've been too and, on the odd occasion when thing haven't quite gone to plan, they have sorted it out with a "customer comes first" attitude that is all too rare these days.

10. Imli
Imli's "Indian Tapas" experience makes for an exciting and interesting meal, and the prices considering its London location, are extremely good.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rasa W1, London

6 Dering Street
London W1S 1AD

Just off Oxford Street is Rasa W1. It used to be a totally vegetarian Indian restaurant, but has now added some meat and seafood dishes to the menu. However, it is still a real haven for veggies as there is a wealth of meat-free dishes to choose from.

This was another Toptable booking, and as soon as I mentioned my name we were shown to our reserved table.

We ordered some snacks to start which consisted of a selection of pappadom type "crisps" including Achappam, a flower shaped snack made of rice flour and coconut, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds, Pappadavadai, pappadoms dipped in a light batter of rice flour, cumin and sesame seeds and fried, Banana Chips and Murukku, crunchy sticks made from roasted rice flour, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds. These were accompanied by small bowls containing garlic pickle, lemon pickle, mixed vegetable pickle, mango pickle, pickle coconut chutney and coriander chutney.

For starters we chose the Rasa Platter a selection of vegetarian starters that consisted of battered banana slices served with peanut and ginger sauce, fried potato balls served with a creamy coconut chutney, fried battered aubergine slices with a fresh tomato chutney and a spongy dumpling served with coconut chutney.

Both the snacks and the starters were really nice, especially the banana slices. We were still finishing the snacks when the starters arrived and I was worried at this point that we might be too full to enjoy the rest of the meal, but despite the batter dumplings and potatoes, it all seemed to be quite light.

For the main course I ordered Beet Cheera Pachadi which, according to the menu is traditionally only served at wedding feasts. It consists of fresh beetroot and spinach in a coconut yoghurt sauce. It was very pink and tasted great.

Also on the table were a spinach and toor dal, stir fried savoy cabbage and rasam, a lentil soup which we poured over the rice. It was really good.

On the side we also shared some rice pancake things that were ideal for mopping up the various sauces.

By the end of the night we were all pleasantly full, but not overfull. The service throughout the night from the moment we walked in, to the time we left was really friendly and very efficient.

The whole meal, including drinks and tip (which was included in the bill) came to just over thirty quid each which wasn't bad at all.

If you're in Oxford Street and get a hankering for a curry, then Rasa W1 is definitely worth a visit.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Food for Friends, Brighton

17-18 Prince Albert Street
The Lanes, Brighton BN1 1HF

Having been recommended the veggie roast at Food for Friends by my acupuncturist, we decided that, despite being on a New Year diet a visit to Brighton for Sunday lunch was in order.
So, at high noon, we turned up at the restaurant just as they were turning the sign from "Closed" to "Open". Food for Friends doesn't take bookings at weekends so we thought we'd get there early. As it was, there were another two parties that entered with us, which isn't bad for a vegetarian restaurant on a cold Sunday in January.

Food For Friends is often thought of as Brighton's "other" vegetarian restaurant after Terre a Terre. However, as the website points out, Food for Friends is Brighton's original vegetarian restaurant and was established in 1981. I've been past it a few times before in years past and have never been tempted by the menu as it always seemed to be part of the "nuts and lentils" side of veggie food.

Not any more, however. The menu is much more up to date, with many Asian influences apparent.

So, what of the meal?

I decided to go with the Sunday lunch special. For starters I had a Curry coconut soup. It was very pleasant, not too spicy, very much in the standard pumpkin/carrot and coriander mould. My wife decided to go for something off of the a la carte menu and chose Hot and Spicy Tom-Ka, which was a hot lemongrass infused tom-ka soup with chestnut mushrooms and shredded spring onions served with steamed jasmine rice. I had a taste and it was great! Nicely spiced without overwhelming the Asian spices.

For main course my wife decided to stay with the Asian theme and ordered a dish called flash in the pan which was shitaki and cashew nuts stir-fried with garlic, ginger and shallot, sweet potato and mixed vegetables served on nori with a crispy vermicelli nest and rice noodles. There was a lot of it and after eating about half of it she said she was now bored as the whole dish tasted the same. I had a taste, and it was nice but I can imagine that without any variation in flavours it would become quite boring to eat after a while.

I decided to have the roast. I had a choice of a Mushroom and Cashewnut roast or Butternut squash spinach Brazil nut and mixed mushroom strudel. Both were served with roast potatoes, glazed parsnips, red cabbage, swede and carrot mash, broccoli, yorkshire pudding red wine and date gravy.

I decided on the strudel. Again, there was plenty of it. And very tasty it was too. The red cabbage was especially nice - it had a sort of Chinese five-spice flavour to it. The mash was really smooth and the strudel was very nice indeed and had a nice texture, with pumpkin seeds giving a nice crunch to it now and again. The gravy was quite sweet, but very nice and theroast potatoes mopped it all up nicely.

By now, we were both too full for dessert. The bill came to forty-four quid for the two of us, including drinks (a couple of non alcoholic cocktails and a coke) and tip. The service was good, the only complaint I had was the screaming kids with the diners next to us. We will be going back sometime to try other dishes on the menu, possibly in the evening when the kids should be in bed...