There aren’t actually that many people in the food scene. It’s like 150 people, Dunbar’s number. When you start as a blogger, you are so excited at first to get free food and drink, you go crazy and attend everything. If you live in London and go out to every event you are invited to, you see the same people time and time again, more often than your own family.
I don’t go out much anymore. I know I won’t get any work done, I’m long past the days where I could drink all night and start work in the morning. So I’m kinda picky about my invitations. I only accept ones that seem interesting and unique. The invitation to have champagne and galette des roi at the Connaught hosted by chef Helene Darroze was one of those occasions. I didn’t realise this was actually an invite to one of the foodie events of the year, a party stuffed full of Michelin star chefs: Bruno Loubet and his wife Catherine, Isaac McHale of The Clove, the enormous 7 foot Nathan Outlaw, Pascal Aussignac of Le Comptoir Gascon, (all the French chefs bien sur), the charming Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis in a velvet suit, Fergus Henderson in a butcher stripe suit (looking very George Melly), Allegra McEvedy, Mikael Jonsson of Hedone, Tom Kitchin, Ravinder Bhogal, Sophie Michell. Lots of important restaurant type journos: the Hot Dinners bro and sis duo (I always thought they were a couple), Stefan Chomka of Restaurant magazine, the ever lethal Susan Sharp (now I’m not on the receiving end I quite enjoy her barbs). I met Chef Raymond Blanc for the first time and he was lovely, open and friendly. A few years ago I tried out for his show The Restaurant but was rejected at the last hurdle. I was disappointed but had a lurking suspicion that the producers didn’t want candidates who could cook. He confirmed this saying ‘the producers only wanted joke candidates’ which was comforting. I also met Liberty London Girl for the first time, her first book is coming out later this year. I once went to the Helene Darroze restaurant to eat lunch, which was a good deal for a michelin star restaurant.
The highlight of the evening for me was that I became the queen when I won a ‘feve’ figurine in the galette des roi which was the BEST I’ve ever eaten, created by Helene’s pastry chef, Kirk Whittle and containing tonka bean and lemon zest. I won a prize of a weekend at the Connaught. Here is my old recipe for galette des roi, which is eaten in France in January to celebrate epiphany.
January is also when I have my birthday: to celebrate, I went out for two vegan meals, at two of the most highly reputed vegan/vegetarian restaurants in London, lunch then dinner.
Lunch was at Vanilla Black, I was taken by WineTrust100 honcho John Valentine. (I will soon be contributing regularly to their site, recipes and thoughts on wine from a non-wine expert). I had the vegan menu and John had the vegetarian menu. Our meal started off well, I had a smokey yellow pea and marmite soup. John had a brie ice cream starter with tangy blackberries, which I tasted, it was flavoursome, unusual and well presented. John had never been to a vegetarian restaurant before and was pleasantly surprised. For main course, I had cauliflower with cashew nut potato (although not sure what that bit was on my plate, I like food to look like what it is), cumin crisps and tamarind paste. Although the food tasted good, the presentation and the colours were that veggie cliché, a khaki plate. John had a goats’ cheese and toasted cauliflower millefeuille main which was also delicious.
Puddings, however, were disappointing. This is a restaurant that is trying to ally the tools of fine dining, deconstructing dishes and whispy plating techniques, to the rather lumpen and worthy reputation of vegetarian/vegan food. However this is not a method that works well with pudding. My peanut butter cheesecake in the form of sticks with cracked cocoa bean and caramelised banana purée didn’t hit the P-spot, the pudding spot, which is generally a whole lot easier to find than the g-spot. You know that surge of sugary ecstasy, followed quickly by a sigh of relief, a relaxation, a discarding of all your cares and woes, that a great pudding delivers. It wasn’t there. Nor was it in John’s chocolate cake. Just cos you are veggie/vegan, it doesn’t mean that dessert should be unsweet and unsatisfactory. We asked the waitress for vegan wines and she had “to go ask”. They need to educate their staff on this issue. Vegan wines are very important for vegans. Believe it or not, many wines contain fish, egg whites and blood.
Dinner took place at Manna restaurant in Primrose Hill. The place soon filled up with posho veggies, the Gwyneth Paltrow gang. Guests, for the main part, were female. However food was heartier at Manna than at Vanilla Black. Taste was their goal rather than presentation.
Manna was a vegetarian restaurant, it’s now vegan. According to vegan author, John Davis of The Vegetarian Society, most new vegetarians are vegans.
I went with the ‘rents’ and we had the mezze for starters, three for £20: the jalapeno cashew ‘cheese’ fritters and raw lasagne (more like a terrine) were very good but the Indian pizza, curry on a poppadum, was underpowered, lacked spice and salt. We ordered the vegan rosé champagne.
For my main course I tried the chef’s special, a southern soulfood version of tempeh, a fermented soy bean cake. It was the second time I’ve ever eaten it, and to be frank, I didn’t like it the first time but gave it another chance. Now I realised I really didn’t like it. It’s very strong and with a weird mouthfeel. I couldn’t eat it.
My father had wild mushroom ragu and chestnut polenta. The polenta was very light, one of the best I’ve ever had. Basically I stole it from my dad. Mum ordered the organic spaghetti and ‘veatballs’. She said there was too much sauce and not enough pasta but it was not bad. But pasta is one of those things that you can mostly make better at home. I didn’t like the ‘veatballs’ because I don’t believe in TVP, textured vegetable protein. It has a horrible texture and who wants imitation meat? I don’t like processed food, whether it be normal or vegan. The main courses were enormous, the other end of the scale from Vanilla Black. You want something in between rather than loads of food piled up which is off-putting. The vegetables however were all very well cooked, al dente and full of flavour.
Pudding was substantial. My raw hazelnut chocolate cake was too heavy for something that wasn’t very sweet. My parents ordered better than I did, although I cannot recall the name of the dish.
The waitress was very kind, when she saw that I barely touched my dessert, she offered to take it off our bill.
Going to the toilet, a man was leaving and I couldn’t help but smell an invisible cloud of fart trailing behind him. The toilets had a LOT of incense sticks in jars. Perils of the plant-based diet.
In summation: there is a lack of good vegetarian/vegan restaurants in London, the choice is minuscule. When are we going to take vegetarian/vegan food seriously here, as they do in New York and California?
I also attended my first Rasta funeral at the tabernacle in Ladbroke Grove. I’ve mentioned the Nine Nights of mourning in African/Caribbean culture in a previous post. After a coconut rum punch, there was enough food to feed an army of ‘dreddies’; much of it was vegan, intrinsic to the Rasta diet. The vegan food must take precedence and be served separately from the meat. We had ital stew and roti, roasted sweet potato wedges, fritters. No Caribbean occasion is complete without a cake: Trevor, the Rasta that had died, had his face reproduced in the middle of an enormous confection of red, gold and green icing. I watched as the cake diminished, first his hat, then his dreads, then his eyes, and finally just a big smile and a few crumbs left on the platter.
A local drummer energized the event with a call to prayer, beating up the spirits. We sang Rivers of Babylon “carry me away from captivity”. People started to sway.
The cost of funerals it turns out, is phenomenal. Just the plot of land costs £4,000, while a cremation is only £800. At the funeral parlour, and there are specialists for Caribbean funerals, you are given a catalogue to choose the casket. I think I’d like to be buried in a wicker hamper, surrounded by Fortnum and Mason goodies.