What do Honest Burger in Brixton, the Black Prince, Kennington, the Commercial in Herne Hill and Ganapati in Peckham all have in common? You might be surprised…
Yesterday we tried a new-to-us pub in Kennington for a Sunday roast. The Black Prince, on the SE11 road of the same name, had been recommended to me by my vegetarian neighbours. They’d been there with omnivorous friends who’d loved the food – and my neighbours were delighted to report that the often dreaded “vegetarian option” was a triumph too. “You must try it,” they enthused.
I must, I thought. Because like them, I’ve been vegetarian for years and know how hard it still can be – even amid London’s fairly recent gastronomique renaissance – to find a menu that really embraces the challenge of cooking interesting food without meat.
And it is a challenge. Start thinking Middle-Eastern, Italian or southern Indian and things get interesting – often for meat-eaters too, as these sorts of cuisines aren’t about replacing meat with something that can never hope to replace it. (I have yet to meet a committed omnivore who’ll willingly eat tofu, or accept that a “shepherd’s pie” made with beans instead of minced lamb, however evangelical I am. And I accept exactly why that is.)
But the Sunday roast is different. It is all about tradition. And when you’re choosing to ditch the biggest traditional component – the meaty centrepiece – one can forgive chefs for assuming you’re up for ditching tradition entirely. Or that, since you’re vegetarian, you just like to have plates of vegetables at meal-times. Or that it’s OK enigmatically to name your lone meat-free menu item “vegetarian option”. Or to have one vegetarian starter and one vegetarian main course: both featuring cheese. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous butternut squash risotto.
Yes, it’s easy to feel that some chefs abandon all attempt at engaging their imaginations at the “vegetarian option” because they think we just need feeding, not palate pleasing.
But the Black Prince was brilliant. Although the menu-writing could do with a little work (“vegetarian loaf” tells you nothing) the plateful that arrived, as you can see above, looked as if it had been made with just as much love as my dining companion’s half-chicken platter. It wasn’t perfect (the gravy was a little insipid – and not because it was lacking meat, more of which in a second – and the centrepiece could have taken a lot of fresh herb flavouring) but it wasn’t predictable, and the rest of my plate looked identical to my neighbour’s.
I don’t mind nuts. But a nut-themed meal? Would you offer it to omnivores?
And when I asked one of the (marvellously hospitable) staff what was in it, the dish had clearly involved a lot more thought than the description suggested. “It’s cous cous, red lentils, mushrooms, rice and root vegetables,” we were told. “A lot of people have nut allergies.” Quite. Though not vegetarians, you’d be forgiven for thinking from many pub lunch menus. And I don’t mind nuts. But a nut-themed meal? Would you offer it to omnivores? And if the answer is no, why is it on the menu?
That said, I have had a very good version of this divisive dish at the Commercial in Herne Hill. What I like is that the menu tells you what’s in it – which nuts and that it also contains cheddar, vegetables and herbs (though we could do with knowing which), rather than assuming you don’t care. Their meat-free roast also comes with super-rich red-wine gravy. Mmm.
Last week I also ate an interesting risotto there, made with goat’s cheese, spinach and studded with sweet, excellently chewy roast cherry tomatoes. My meat-eating friend even ordered the same.
Equally good for vegetarians, you might be surprised to hear, is Brixton Market’s Honest Burger. Because they specialise in burgers, the place reassuringly makes no attempt to disguise their carefully sourced beef- or chicken-free versions as “burgers”: so when you order the spicy cauliflower, sweetcorn and shallot fritter – you know what you’re getting. And it’s delicious and (being deep-fried) as indulgent as anything in a burger joint should be.
On this tip, chefs should know that “Portobello mushroom burger” is an oxymoron. A friend from a family so committed to meat that her father has warned her off ever bringing home a vegetarian boyfriend, ordered one in a nameless southeast London pub because she fancied something lighter than the beef. I knew better. And I felt for her I witnessed the expression of confusion and disappointment on her face as she took her first bite.
I’ve previously written about the astonishingly good meat-free sausages at the Cambria in Loughborough Junction and the Prince Regent on Dulwich Road. I recently found out both pubs buy them, along with their meat, from Smithfield Market. To me, that is why they are so good – no self-respecting butcher would stand for the often wheaty, oddly lumpy and unspringy offerings that often pass for vegetarian bangers. And, away from pub grub, if you’ve been to Peckham’s backstreet Southern Indian restaurant, Ganapati, you’ll probably agree that the meat-free fare there is spectacular. But so are their free-range chicken curries. And if you think a plate of tomatoes – or any meat-free dish – equals dull and bland, you haven’t tried the astounding starter of five heritage varieties at Brixton’s Cornercopia. Or try a thali around the corner at Brixton’s Elephant, which specialises in Pakistani street food, and you’ll find the same joy.
Chefs of south London: take note!
Words & photographs, unless specified: Kate Burt