Tag Archives: restaurant

Restaurant review: Saffron

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Photo 26-07-2016, 13 09 59

Clifton Village is the trendy place to be in Bristol, and isn’t short of cute places to eat or to lounge around for coffee. Saffron proved to be a great find to recover from retail therapy and to gather energy for the next round.

The menu has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it, although the all-day brekkies looked pretty impressive. But given we’d had a thwarted trip that day to Bristol Lido (park in Weston-super-Mare and walk the rest), we wanted tapas.

And we inhaled it, accompanied by moans and whimpers of appreciation. If you’re veggie, there’s plenty of choice – I can recommend the halloumi in honey with a tomato sauce very highly. The stuffed vine leaves (dolmades) filled with mushrooms, rice and squash were lightly seasoned and came with a cool and creamy tzatziki sauce. The only slight disappointment was a rather bland baba ganoush, which could have been smokier.

I sneaked a taste of the Mediterranean lentils (seasoned with cumin for sure), spinach pie (think it’s called Spanakopita) filled with leek, feta and spinach, and the hummus. I must have looked plaintive and under-fed, as I got to scrape up the last traces of the latter. I can confirm I’d order all three like a shot next time.

Three plates and warm flatbread came in at well under a tenner (£7.95), with very friendly service. And you’ve got to love places that offer you iced water without being asked. Bargain.

Saffron: 4a Boyce’s Avenue, Clifton Village, Bristol BS8 4AA. Tel: 0117 329 4204.

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Review: The Storyteller

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When you have a food blog, people assume you can recommend good restaurants and cafes with ease. Not necessarily, given the challenges of finding vegetarian and vegan food on menus that doesn’t involve butternut squash, sun-dried tomato or goat’s cheese. Which explains why I’ll happily choose Indian food as a default setting, rather than stare forlornly at another half-arsed attempt from a can’t be arsed chef.

But when a friend asked for ideas for where she and her husband could take visitors from India, my usual fallback was looking rather like a busman’s holiday. So, being terribly self-sacrificing, we agreed to try out some of the quirkier places in Cheltenham.

The town suffers from a surfeit of vaguely posh hotels with ideas above their station and not much in the way of decent veggie food. There’s a Raymond Blanc, which I found to be thoroughly underwhelming – a small square of still frozen bland lasagne. Oh, yum.

The Storyteller is rather a gem, though. It’s on the edge of the town centre, but right next to a big car park. The website describes the food as Tex-Mex and BBQ grill, and at lunchtime you can get three courses for £12.50. It’s a bright, conservatory sort of building, with art on the walls. Service was friendly and efficient.

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The menu’s not over-burdened with veggie choice (and you’ll be going hungry if you’re vegan). But what’s there is a bit different. The lunch menu offered sweet potato and butternut squash soup that was smooth, perfectly spiced and dotted with herby croutons. And the main course was rather intriguing – cinnamon cornbread with green vegetables and a cheese and chilli sauce. As one of my friends said, you wouldn’t want to eat it for every meal, but it was, again, immaculately spiced and the vegetables cooked to perfection. We’ll overlook the fact that the bread had the consistency of a faintly crumbly fruitcake! The chocolate torte, which I didn’t need but wanted, was divine – smooth, rich and not over-sweet.

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The lunch special (four choices for each course) included chicken fajita, and lamb enchilada the day we visited – and I always wonder how difficult it would be to offer vegetarian or vegan options of both of those.

The dinner menu looks light on veggie stuff – and the ubiquitous butternut squash makes an appearance in burritos. So I get the feeling the Storyteller is a decent place to eat occasionally, with nicely-presented and thoughtfully-prepared slightly quirky food, but not a regular haunt for vegetarians unless the menu gets changed a lot. If the friend’s Indian visitors are meat eaters, they’ll be OK. If not, watch this space as we explore further …

The Storyteller
11 North Place
Cheltenham
GL50 4DW
Tel: 01242 250343
http://www.storyteller.co.uk

Restaurant review: Star Bistro

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Some years ago I did some freelance work at a college in Birmingham. The money was rubbish, but I discovered the perk on the first day when the people I was working with ushered me down to the training canteen run by catering students.

Many college training restaurants are open to the public. Yes, you might have to be patient with befuddled new students at the start of term, and the menu is often fairly limited. But the food, in my experience, is worth taking a chance for.

Star Bistro, which is part of the National Star Centre at Ullenwood, near Cheltenham, is a definite gem. The college is for students with disabilities, and has produced some Paralympians. Based on today’s showing, it’ll be turning out some talented chefs as well.

The restaurant is light, airy and cheerful, with plenty of space between tables for wheelchairs to get through. And this also means you don’t feel your neighbours can reach over and snitch a chip. It’s an open kitchen at one end where staff from the Wiggly Worm, who run the bistro with the college, are supervising students.

The college aims to use local produce. And the chefs certainly know how to showcase the food, which has wonderful flavours and is immaculately presented. It’s good value, too – £14 for two courses and £20 for three (the latter includes coffee). 

A basket of two home-baked breads arrived at the table very promptly, as did, unasked, a bottle of tap water, which won the place brownie points before we’d even started! The menu isn’t huge, particularly for vegetarians (and beware of the parmesan – I suspect those in the kitchen, like many restaurants, don’t realise it isn’t veggie).

The starter, pumpkin gnocchi, came with a sage butter, nutmeg creme fraiche, crisp sage leaves and parmesan shavings. The small brown ovals looked nothing like usual pale gnocchi. And the flavours were amazing. Also veggie (sans parmesan cream) was mushroom soup, which was garnished with tarragon and croutons. The only criticism of both from my stepmother (who had the soup) and me was that they could have been slightly hotter.

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There was just one vegetarian main course, but it was fabulous – mini spinach and ricotta cakes with a dijon mustard and cream sauce, pea shoots and goats’ cheese mousse. I was glad I was warned by my stepmother, who’d been before, that it came as is – it definitely needed a bowl of buttery new potatoes to bulk it out. Again, the flavours were just beautiful.

Dessert was an autumn crumble, packed full of apple, plums and blackberries, with a sesame, pumpkin seed and almond crumble topping, served with a dinky pot of creme anglais. I narrowly resisted licking the plate.

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Service was cheerful – there are cunning gadgets to help students with disabilities take orders and then deliver the food to the table. It turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant choice for my dad’s birthday meal and certainly one to try again.

According to the website, they will cater for special diets, so I assume vegans could phone in advance. Note, though, that the bistro is only open during the week (11am – 4pm). It also serves morning coffee and traditional teas.

Star Bistro

National Star College

Ullenwood

Cheltenham

Tel: 01242 535984

http://www.natstar.ac.uk/drupal/content/star-bistro

Restaurant Review: Las Iguanas, South Bank

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Las Iguanas at the Royal Festival Hall stands at the foot of the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges on the Southbank. It serves Pan South American food and drinks.

Now, the Menus page of the website, lists a vegetarian/vegan menu, but when I asked for one at the table I was told just to pick from the vegetarian items on the main menu. I did email them to ask about this, but so far (and this was two weeks ago) they haven’t replied back.

That’s disappointing, but Las Iguanas does have a good vegetarian selection. It tends to lean towards the cheese and cream end of the spectrum so I was pleased to find Bahia Moqueca, a coconut curry with squash, palm hearts and spinach. No dairy involved, at least by the menu description.

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It came in a dish kept warm over a little burner, which is nice. I like a bit of theatre at dinner. The dish wasn’t as flashy as its presentation, but had a nicely spiced coconut curry sauce with interesting vegetable bits in it. It had a noticeable level of heat, but nothing too much. It was a lot fresher and lighter than similar dishes would be in east asian restaurants. The rice was flavourful and came with a side of sweet plantain and a dish of coconut to spinkle over. I enjoyed it, and it hit lots of nice boxes in my effort to eat out without having to have cheese everywhere.

I’ve never been to Las Iguanas without it being busy and this visit was no exception. The service is not brusque, but it is brisk, it’s best to have any menu queries to hand because otherwise you’ll be asking them at your waiter’s retreating back.

They make rocking margaritas, though.

Dinner for one (including cocktail and service) £19.21

Las Iguanas at the Royal Festival Hall
Festtival Terrace
Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX
Tel: 0207 620 1328

Discussion: Hobson’s Vegetarian – when the vegetarian option is Hobson’s choice

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Let me set a scenario for you. A person goes out for a meal at a restaurant. When they look at the menu they make a choice of starter and main course. Allowing for personal likes and dislikes, they will usually choose a main that contrasts with their starter in main ingredient, texture or cooking method. So they won’t have salad for both courses, or pasta for both courses, or cheese, or fish. They’ll mix and match.

If you just read that scenario and nodded your head in recognition that, yes, this is how eating out works for you, then the chances are you’re not a vegetarian. With the honourable exception of Italian, Indian and some other ethnic cuisines, a vegetarian at a mainstream restaurant will have a choice of about 2-3 starters and 1-2 mains (and it’s much more likely to be 2 and 1!)

So the choice is limited and remember that contrasting tastes and textures thing? It doesn’t happen so much for vegetarians. There’s a little restaurant not far from me. It’s current menu has two vegetarian starters – arancini with leeks and blue cheese or deep fried bri wedges with cumberland sauce, the one vegetarian main course is macaroni cheese. That’s cheese or cheese followed by cheese. They have actually expanded their vegetarian options. Last year the vegetarian options were garlic mushrooms for starter and wild mushroom casserole for main.

OK, you can laugh at them, and I do. I also haven’t stepped through their door. They’re a small, local restaurant with no apparent ambitions beyond good write-ups on TripAdvisor. Peace to all such!

But that clueless restaurant got me thinking. What is it like for veggies at the higher end of the market, where the restauranteurs court reviews from broad-sheet restaurant critics. What’s it like where Jay Rayner & Giles Coren go to dine?

Well, here’s a real menu I found (name withheld to protect the guilty):

Starters
SautÈed Razor Clams, Kohlrabi, Pineapple, Wasabi and Coriander
Chargrilled Quail, Green Papaya Salad and Peanut Sauce (£1 Supp)
Pressed Skate, Saffron, Dill, Radish and Tomato Emulsion
Globe Artichoke, Dandelion, Parmesan Custard, Truffle and Honey,
Red Pepper Gazpacho, Feta, Toasted Hazelnut, Dried Olives, Capers and Basil
Frogs Legs, Smoked Garlic, Pickled Fennel and Lemon Mascarpone

Mains
Fillet of Beef, Buttered Potato, White Onion, Roasted Bone Marrow and Parsley Butter (£6 Supp)
Roast Monkfish, Spiced Lentils, Beetroot Raita, Shallot Pakora, Tomato and Cardamom Sauce
Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, Crispy Pigs Trotter, Black Pudding, Sweet Potato and Cider
Duck Breast, Confit Duck Roll, Butternut Squash, Runner Beans, Soy and Blackberries
Open Ravioli, Goats Cheese, Chargrilled Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pine Nuts, Oregano, Confit Tomatoes
Fish of the Day

Look at the ambition in that menu! Individually each course makes your mouth water. But for a vegetarian, that’s a starter with feta followed by goats cheese. I strongly suspect that the restaurant thinks that there are two vegetarian starters, but parmesan hasn’t been vegetarian for years!

Well, that’s one menu. Is it representative? To find out I went and looked. I took as my sample restaurant reviews in The Guardian, The Observer, The Telegraph and The Independent websites for August 2013. I went to the restaurant websites and looked at their menus. Where there was a dinner or a al carte menu I counted the number of vegetarian starters and main courses they offered, noting how many of those included goats’ cheese or other cheese. I did a quick check to see if any set menus had veggie options as well. I also counted whether a ‘V’ next to a menu item was accurate as well.

These are the reviewed restaurants that had a website with a current, or sample, menu:
The Honours, Caisse-Croute, Whyte&Brown, Le Champignon Sauvage, Hutong, Rock Lobsta, Blue Boar Smokehouse, Grain Store, Otto’s, Fleet Street Kitchen, The Green Room, Plum + Spilt Milk, Shoryu Ramen, River Cottage Canteen, Paesan, Picture, La Famiglia, The Olde Bell, 63, Manchester, Rockfish, Hartnett Holder & Co, The Dairy, Taqueria, The Kitchin, Van Zeller.

I have not contacted any of these restaurants for clarification or explanation. I’ve treated this exercise as I would if I was looking for a restaurant I wanted to visit. A restaurant’s website is the face they want to present to the world as much as their restaurant front window. If they choose to present a face that’s unfriendly to vegetarians I’m going to take them at their word.

There were 25 restaurants that I examined. Of the dinner and set menus, there were 475 main courses in total, 75 (16%) of which were vegetarians and 43 (57%) of those that contained cheese. There were 291 starters, 90 (30%) of which were were vegetarian and 39 (43%) involving cheese. Now 16% vegetarian main courses is ahead of the game considering that only about 10% of the population is vegetarian but that vegetarian population does have to like cheese.

Speaking of cheese, 7 restaurants only offered mains that contained cheese and 5 offered only cheese based starters. And, yes, there was 1 that offered only cheese as a starter and a main course.

On another cheese related tack, 13 restaurants marked the vegetarian items on their menus. A scary 5 (that’s nearly 39%) were inaccurate about what constitutes vegetarian – mostly this was to do with parmesan cheese being thought suitable. The only way to deal with this is to be that vegetarian and interrogate the waiter at every meal. You cannot assume anything from the menu. One restaurant offered ‘Sourdough bread with smoked butter’. Sound innocuous enough, but the review of this place nonchalantly praised the smoked bone marrow that gave it such a wonderful flavour!

6 places (that’s nearly 25%) offered no vegetarian main course and a further 5 offered only one choice. Hobson’s vegetarian indeed. A couple of places said that they would do something special if a vegetarian asked before arriving, but gave no indication of an example of what this might be. One place, which offered not a single, solitary vegetarian option either as starter or main, would do a ‘surprise’ vegetarian tasting menu (the surprise being that you have no clue what they think constitutes ‘vegetarian’) as long as the whole table ordered it. So, they expect a bunch of vegetarians to turn up mob-handed and order, sight unseen, a very expensive meal. I can only guess at the take-up rate for that, I wouldn’t risk it.

This makes me sad and angry. Angry because it looks like a substantial minority of the chefs at these restaurants just don’t care about vegetarians. It makes me sad because these are the places we should be going to. These are the independents, the quality places, the individualistic ones, the ones that add difference to the high street. And if they’re not getting it right, the chains are. Nandos has a better vegetarian selection than most of the restaurants I looked at. ASK has a better selection, so does Pizza Express. I don’t know how many trips to restaurants are negotiated around vegetarian options but I know my friends do it with me and so does my office – if there isn’t a decent vegetarian option we don’t go to those places. That means a place with bad vegetarian options doesn’t just lose the custom of the vegetarian, they lose it for everyone in that party that would have spent money with them otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the chains have figures around how often that happens and have changed their menus accordingly.

Now I get that vegetarians make up, at best, only 10% of the population. I get that, in a non-specialist restaurant, only vegetarians will tend to eat the vegetarian main course. No restaurant can afford to have menu items that very few people pick. But, it shouldn’t take a genius to construct a menu with one main course that’s different to the starters. Now maybe the restaurants I looked at don’t need to worry about what vegetarians want. Maybe they don’t care. But until they do, this vegetarian will be at my local pub. It’s not posh or gourmet, but it has a separate vegetarian menu with two vegan options! That beats every single other restaurant in that list of twenty-five. They get it. What’s stopping the big guys?

Restaurant Review: The Firestation Bar and Restaurant, Waterloo

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If you stood outside The Firestation Bar and Restaurant on Waterloo Rd, as a vegetarian, you’d hesitate to go in. There’s a distinct smell of cooking meat coming from it. I’m not so sure that it is actually the meat cooking that you can smell, but they fry their chips in beef dripping and I think that’s the aroma that greets you on the street. That’s not all that greets you on the street, the noise from the busy bar spills over as well. It doesn’t seem to be a promising place for a nice veggie meal, but appearances can be deceptive.

The first room you come to inside is the bar. I’ve never seen it less than packed and noisy either with commuters stopping for a drink before getting the train home or for theatre goers (the Old and Young Vic are nearby). Behind the bar is the restaurant. This is much quieter, thankfully. It’s a big space, even more so with the height from the firestation it used to be. There are nice touches with the tiled walls and fire buckets around that are reminders of its former life.

Service was prompt and friendly without having the waiters hovering over us.

You can’t get away from the the fact that meat features heavily in the menu, but there are three veggie starters and two main courses. And, while the starters involve cheese, neither of the mains do!!! I know, someone who thinks you can feed vegetarians without shoving big lumps of cheese at them – it’s almost unheard of!

I had the Heritage Tomato on Roasted Garlic Foccacia as my starter.

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This was a bit underwhelming. For a start it came hidden under a big pile of undressed rocket leaves. Now I’m as big a fan of green leafy vegetables as you’re likely to find, but both courses had this foliage. A garnish I can understand, but this was like a small greengrocers’ stall had been upended over the plate. I had to move it aside to be able to take a picture. I couldn’t really taste the garlic in the foccacia and while there was a decent selection of different varieties of tomato they were served raw and fridge cold so there was no differentiation in flavour to be descerned. Cold tomatoes on toast with a light sprinkling of crumbled goats cheese. Not brilliant.

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The main course made up for it. I went for the potato gnocchi with sunblush tomatoes and roasted artichokes. This came with the rocket haystack, but at least it was mentioned on the menu and the leaves wilted and became one with the rest of the food. This is a dish with gutsy flavours. The sunblush tomatoes dominate, but the artichokes stand up to them and then there’s the creamy bite of the pan-fried gnocchi to add a solid background. It’s a great dish and proves that you don’t need to have a solid lump of protein in a meal for it to be satisfying.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, really, but worth a another visit at least.

Meal and drinks for one came to £24

The Firestation Bar and Restaurant
150 Waterloo Road
London
SE1 8SB
Tel: 020 7620 2226

Review: Loungers

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Chain restaurants are a mixed blessing for vegetarians. You’re probably going to get something edible, but the chances are it won’t be very thrilling. Cue risotto or variations on pasta with sun-dried tomatoes …

So it’s worth celebrating when you come across a gem. And based on two visits this weekend, Loungers is somewhere to return to time and again. It looks like there are currently about a dozen branches in England. Not only do they have a good vegetarian menu, there’s also a vegan one which restores your faith in restaurants (mind you, Loungers call themselves café bars). And if you need gluten-free food, there’s a choice for you as well.

The only slightly odd thing is that the vegan and gluten-free menus aren’t out on the tables, and I suspect most people wouldn’t think to ask for them. We only found out in advance because my sharp-eyed partner in crime Anth had found the website.

Three of us visited the Westbury-on-Trym branch of Loungers for a Friday night meal, then again on the Saturday for brunch. The decor is all wooden tables and chairs, and comfy sofas. You find a table and then order at the bar.

As you might expect, Friday night was busy and we nabbed the last free table upstairs. Saturday we sat downstairs by the big open windows. The place had a nice buzz to it both times and we all commented on how cheerful and friendly the staff were.

Friday night’s choice boiled down to my guilty pleasure of a burger and fries (funny how I’d never have dreamed of eating one back in the dim and distant days of meat), or a selection of the tapas. Eleven out of 16 of the tapas choices are vegetarian, and seven are vegan. The dishes are £3.25 each or three for £8.50, and come with ciabatta bread. Three is a good amount for one person, based on my friend Linda’s choices. She went mainly for meat, but we did sneak a taste of the potatoes with smoked garlic and wasabi aioli which were very moreish.

OK, so both Anth and I went for the burger – butternut squash and nutmeg falafel, served with grilled halloumi, chipotle salsa, cos lettuce and tomato (it becomes vegan with the disappearance of the halloumi!) And very good it was too, with a decent texture and subtle flavours. The chips met with universal approval, as they were proper chips and not skinny fries which turn into twigs after ten minutes. A small side salad completed the ensemble.

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We didn’t have dessert, but Linda claims the warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce is to die for. And I fully intend to try the vegan dark chocolate and ginger torte.

The next morning we turned up at about 11am for breakfast. Linda went for the full range of pig products, Anth had the vegetarian option and me the vegan. Apparently they will substitute items, which solves my usual problem of not eating egg in any shape or form. But I wanted falafel and hummus for breakfast …

The vegan brekkie came with falafel bites, warm hummus, grilled red pepper (not something I’d think about for breakfast, but very nice), button mushrooms, grilled tomato and baked beans, plus a generous slice of toast. The rather unusual combination worked really well, and it was only much later that I realised it hadn’t come with the advertised diced crispy potatoes! The vegetarian version comprised mini sweetcorn fritters, hash browns, tomato, beans, mushrooms, peppers and toast, together with two fried eggs. I didn’t hear any complaints from Anth.

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Oh, and there was freshly-squeezed orange juice and very respectable coffee. And some more chatty staff kept up with the busy Saturday morning comings and goings. Loungers is definitely a good find whether you just fancy lounging around and drinking coffee, or want something a bit more substantial.

http://www.thelounges.co.uk (this is right and not a typo!)