Saturday, 19 January 2008

Vegetarians Anonymous

As you may (or may not) have guessed by now, I’m a vegetarian. There: I’ve outed myself.

But before that conjures up all sorts of stereotypes, please be reassured that I’m not one of those crusading types. I’m not really a veggie on the grounds of any great principle, though it does help being able to stand smugly aside from the debate arising from Jamie Oliver’s latest crusade against intensively-farmed poultry. I’m happy with just a plate of vegetables if I’m at a friend’s for dinner, or something easy from the Supermarket that they’ve bunged in the oven. (Such dinners are about meeting friends in their home surroundings, as far as I’m concerned, not some kind of competitive foodie event). I am grateful that I’ve been asked, and that they’ve considered my needs.

I realise that some raise their vegetarianism to the status of a religion. I still remember a meal I cooked, trying to cope guests including one with a starch and dairy intolerance, a coeliac and a vegan. Not an easy task, so I tried to keep it very simple. And everyone was happy, at least until dessert. Then the vegan triumphantly proclaimed over my soya-yoghurt and honey offering that honey wasn’t vegan, and accused me of exploitation. I was more astonished than anything else. She could have simply asked for something different, rather than crushing me beneath the weight of her moral high ground.

That said, I do get a little tired of being treated like some kind of leper by some restaurants, and exploited by others. Clearly, I don’t expect steak houses to cater for me – that’s their perogative. In my experience, it’s the extremes that are a pain actually: Veggie-only places can be either excessive in their worthiness, and incredibly dull: after all, there’s a limit to what one can do with tofu and buckwheat in the same dish. (Though there are some noble exceptions to this, of course, such as Terre-a-Terre in Brighton).

At the other extreme, very posh restaurants can be simply condescending in the nod they make to veggies (after all, they may be part of a larger party whose custom they’d lose if they didn’t make some provision). This occasionally happened to me with work-related hospitality: contacts would take me somewhere fancy, when I'd have preferred something rather more straightforward. The restaurants then felt they had to justify the price-tag with a sophisticated offering, rather than something familiar and nice: I’ve came to dread those oh-so-clever risottos - usually with a single ingredient - where these were the only vegetarian choice.

One of the worst was a Lemon Risotto at a place (which shall be nameless) in Islington. It was made creamy, not by gentle cooking, but with cream added to under-cooked rice. It was al dente to the point of being gritty, and flavoured with the merest hint of lemon, while being incredibly rich. I think it was supposed to sound refined and subtle, but was actually horrible, and at £16.95 an extraordinary rip-off. I would much rather have had something straightforward – pasta, curry, stew, a stir-fry – and robust. Part of the problem, of course, is the French influence in Michelin-starred restaurants, being one of the less sympathetic cuisines for vegetarians – and yet a good Ratatouille can be a very fine dish on its own.

And there’s the rub: medium-priced and bargain restaurants can actually be very good at this sort of thing, as they are simply cooking dishes which are, in any case, vegetarian, rather than trying to cater for vegetarians specifically. And this always works so much better for me. Lots of cuisines – the aforementioned Italian, Indian, Chinese – can be both excellent, and affordable.

So, you’re actually spoiled for choice. In West London for dependable pizza and pasta, there are the chains like Dino’s, ASK, Pizza Express and Spaghetti House. Unfortunately, my favourite local Italian closed last year, and I'm still searching for a replacement. For Asian cuisine, Earl’s Court has Masala Zone and the New Lotus Garden, or Wagamama, if you fancy a Japanese twist.

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