By Veggie Tom
What is it, when chefs are poring over their perfect menus and chalking up dream dishes for the beef buffs, the lamb lovers and the fish fans, that makes them hit the veggie roadblock and go blank.
“Sod it,” they think. “Let’s give them risotto.”
Oh, risotto. In the five years I have been reviewing restaurants, I have eaten enough risotto to feed a battalion. I’m pretty sure there’s a farm in Arborio which I’m keeping afloat by myself.
Restaurant owners, menu planners, head chefs – here’s a hard truth for you. If your restaurant’s vegetarian option is risotto, you are simply not as good as you think you are. You may be able to fry and sauce a steak, but you are short on invention.
There are people out there exploring a vast and varied world of incredible flavours to which you can’t see because your heads are stuck in the fridge.
The Black Swan at Oldstead in North Yorkshire has a vegetarian tasting menu. A Michelin-starred pub-cum-hotel in the middle of nowhere, its 24-year-old head chef Tommy Banks cooks carrot five ways, pairs breaded quail’s egg with trompette mushrooms and watercress sauce, and dots his perfectly tender asparagus spears with sheep’s milk and toasted hazelnut and radish.
Because of that, half the diners eating there the night I visited were vegetarian. They come from far and wide and fork over £75, and they bring their meat eating friends who pay the same for a regular tasting menu filled with meat, fish and – yes – vegetables cooked with the same skill and precision.
Why bother with such an extensive veggie option, I asked? The reply was that vegetarians often dictate the venue for dinner. And it’s true – even the sole veggie in a party of six often gets the final say on the restaurant. Because their friends, if they are good friends, will feel bad if the only choice on a menu is risotto.
It’s not just Michelin star prices that dictate good veggie options. In my home town of Harrogate, a new restaurant is opening up inspired by Nordic food – seasonal, fresh, local where possible.
At Nord, regular eaters can pay just £10.95 for a beautiful venison dish, while vegetarians can taste the finest, butter-fried cep and girolle mushrooms, beautifully sweet white asparagus, popped millet and a mushroom dashi flavoured with pine needles from the woods nearby. For £8.95.
When I next take my friends for dinner, that’s where we’re going. And I know at least one of them will order the salad – the vegetarian salad – because it is an eye-poppingly gorgeous creation meticulously built from 40 different ingredients.
All I want, chefs, is something you would eat. Don’t give me a tasteless lasagne, a pasta dish I could make at home or a Thai curry the nearby takeaway does better for half the price. And don’t, if you want me to ever come back, give me risotto.
Give me something you would eat yourself. Make me a dinner you would happily devour, and if you can’t, well – it seems you’ve hit your ceiling. Your mind is lost in Maillard reactions, your taste buds dulled by umami and numbed by rich, soporific fat. You pride yourself on the flavour in your duck and the tenderness of your cod but you cannot cook a carrot.
Think about that for a moment.
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Linda McCartney Chilli Non Carne with Rice
Non carne, eh? Very clever. The taste of this microwave pot meal is good, too – rice, beans, Vegemince and good flavour depth in the sauce make this hearty and filling. Tasted by Veggie Tom.
Ingredients: Tomatoes (30%) , Water , Onions , Adzuki Beans (7%) , Organic Red Kidney Beans (7%) , Long Grain Rice (5%) , Vegemince (4.5%) , Tomato Puree , Vegetable Oil , Mushroom Bouillon , Coriander Leaf , Dark Chocolate (0.7%) , Demerara Sugar , Garlic , Salt , Cumin , Smoked Paprika , Cornflour , Ground Coriander , Chilli Powder , Mushroom Bouillon contains: Mushroom Juice, Cornstarch, Vegetable Oil, Salt , Vegemince contains: Water, Soya Protein (40%), Vegetable Oil, Seasoning (Yeast Extract, Salt, Barley Malt Extract, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Dextrose, Pepper) Malt Extract, Onion Powder , Dark Chocolate contains: Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Powder, Soya Lecithin, Natural Vanilla Flavouring .