Alfred Prasad’s tasting menu at Sani Gourmet festival, Greece

The night started off as any other night as a vegan. With low sighs and frustration as I leafed through the delicious sounding tasting menu. Everything said it was coated with yoghurt, meat, or other non-vegan miscellany. So I asked the waitress behind me if it would be possible to order a salad from another restaurant on the resort while the press group I was travelling with tucked into to a sensory, delicious eating experience.

But she looked shocked at the suggestion. A second later a waiter came over and told me that Prasad and his team would make a vegan friendly menu for me, so I could enjoy everything. I was so bowled over by this generosity (considering how crazy the kitchen must be) that I must have just beamed. I had loved Atul Kochar’s Benares and I was excited to experience Prasad’s cooking too. Michelin star Indian cooking is just so interesting and exciting – it’s almost as good as a big bowl of curry and naan.

Each course was staggeringly good, and here, in pictures, is why you should go and eat at one of Prasad’s restaurants. It was exceptional. I want to thank his team for making me something spectacular that I could enjoy as much as my colleagues.

To start

Chickpea and tamarind

Chickpea and tamarind

This chickpea pate (almost) tasted like a swish version of Bhel Poori balls. Sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, wheat strains, and puffed bread, it was the most exceptional dish of the evening. It burst with flavour, and went from sweet, to sour, to bitter, to sweet again in seconds. An absolute joy to eat.

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Sorry for the BLUR

While everyone else got a broth of mussels and a scallop (which smelled fragrant and delicious), I was served a spiced fruit salad (almost like a chaat) served with a potato cake. On the potato cake (which was gently spiced), there was a spread of pepper relish which lifted the potato. The only strange thing? Such a salad worked well with the mango that was in it – I don’t think I’m ready for spiced strawberries and potatoes.

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While everyone else was eating something different (probs more fish), I was served a Greek classic – with an Indian twist. A softly baked tomato served with Indian spiced couscous and a circle of pickled red onion. It was warming and delicious, and I appreciated it very much, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the first chickpea course. MAN.

Palate cleanser

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This divided the table – a tamarind granita. I’m tired of gushing, but this was a grower. It was like a salty lassi – on first sip you’re not sure it’s really what you want. But the coldness cut through any strange salty undertones, went to a sweet granita and finished with fresh mint. It was the best palate cleanser I have ever had, hands down. I could probably have drunk an entire mugful, it was that good.

Main

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Butter Chicken is the classic Indian dish. And I think I got something better. Soft, fluffy rice topped with an incredible tomato vegetable sauce. How can I describe this without salivating? Impossible. The vegetables were cut and cooked to perfection and the sauce they were cooked in was rich and decadently spiced. But the highlight of the main? The tiny pot of coconut curry sauce which, if I’d been alone, I would have licked out to make sure none was wasted.

Dessert

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Dessert is a tough one to replicate for vegans with just 2 minutes notice, so I’ll forgive the kitchen for not going to town with this one. I got two scoops of sorbet – one, a beautiful, creamy mango, and the other, a tangy and quite harsh pomegranate. But, happily, they were decorated with shards of raspberry tuile which were TO DIE FOR.

Alfred Prasad, I salute you and your team. You made my week. Thank you for accommodating such a tricky eater. It was all wonderful. And to anyone else who fancies checking out this talented chef, he plans to open his own London eatery soon.

DISCLAIMER: I was on a press trip to Sani Resort, where the event was held, but my views on my blog are my own. 

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Maxim’s, Paris

 

 A hallowed shrine to the Belle Époque, somewhere held in esteemed reverence by historians, artists, and food traditionalists.

Just off the Champs Élysées, Maxim’s is a cathedral of decadence and gluttony – mainly of the meat variety. A main course starts at 78 euros and climbs to 95 euros. This isn’t a place to take a spendthrift. Nothing is restrained about Maxim’s, from the elderly waiters with perfectly starched outfits who all look as though they are playing the part of servers in a silent 1920’s flick, to the stained glass mirrors which line the room. “So delicate are these windows”, we are told by our host, “that a crack team of cleaning specialists have to come in from the Louvre.”

There are no windows in the main salon. It is the embodiment of a place where the party didn’t have to end just because it got light. Names are reeled off about the famous visitors: “Fitzgerald, JFK, Woody Allen.”

It is almost oppressively warm on this unseasonably sunny April day, yet I am imagine nowhere nicer than in December, surrounded by flowing wine and witticisms, songs and dancing when the tables are pushed back against the walls. It’s a space that seems to mourn the past – no smoke clouds the mirrors and clings to the upholstery; no after-dinner cigars are leisurely consumed; and it all shuts up at a respectable midnight. 

Despite its decadent evocation of private dining and the Belle Époque, the vegan food choices were une catastrophe (if we’re going French). I was there as part of a press trip, and they had been forewarned that I had (for France) weirdo dietary requirements. I was first handed a plate of langoustine, to which I just look bemused. While everyone else was eating the crustacean, they hurriedly prepared six trunks of over-cooked asparagus (a miracle as it was done so quickly) with a vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was delicious – tangy and smooth and rich as a runny egg yolk. 

  

Beef was proffered twice for my main, until I described my predicament and they rustled up some vermicelli with mushrooms. To their credit, this was done with incredibly short notice, but the seasoning was totally missing. Absolutely bland. But delicoius mushrooms. Can’t win them all!

This isn’t meant to be a review of Maxim’s, because what they do – classical, rich, decadent French food, looked marvellous, and it was getting lots of praise. But it’s more of a comment on France in general, and how frustrating eating out can be for vegans. You’re looked at like a total freak, and to their credit again, the waiters at Maxim’s didn’t treat me like I was missing the right side of my head but were courteous and accommodating.

I’m sure that with a little more notice they could have come up with something truly evocative of the golden age, only a cruelty-free version.

Back to Herbivore, Mission District San Fransisco

This is a very quick blog post written purely to recommend three things. Visiting the sutro baths, eating before you get on an internal Delta flight, and eating the quesadillas at Herbivore. I could devour them every day and I don’t think I could get bored of that plate of food.

  

I’d get fat, yes, but aside from Mohawk Bend in LA, I’m not sure there’s another restaurant in the world that turns unhealthy classics vegan as well as Herbivore do. And no, I don’t do PR for them, I’m just hungry for quesadillas.

  

The mission burrito: vegan style at El Casa Mexicana, SF

The mission burrito. It had to happen. It’s a behemoth that puts all other burritos I’ve eaten to shame. It looks more like a brick than a food stuff, and after eating a quarter of it, I feel that the whole pound of burrito that is left could feed a small family for a week.

  

Although everybody says you should go to Mission Street to get the burrito if your dreams, we obviously didn’t do that, and went to a road about five blocks west, closer to Duboce and Castro than Mission. I wanted to go in because I am perennially afraid of beans being cooked in pig lard, and Casa Mexicana had an enormous range of vegetarian options including tofu. This sounded like the worst option, so I opted for that to see if they could make it work.
Like everyone in the world, they couldn’t make the white flaccid tofu work, however marinated it had been in Mexican flavour sauces. But the rest of the burrito was incredible.
First she coated the tortilla bread in a layer of rice, added black beans (with an elaborate wrist-flick) and scattered a few chunks of tofu (regret). Then a generous handful of lettuce, guacamole, hot sauce, and chopped tomatoes before packaging it all up – envelope style – and thwacking it on the plate.
If this sounds bland – thank you for your concern, but don’t panic! There was an enormous station of condiments, sauces, limes, and chopped onions to pour and drizzle over, which made the whole experience far more verdant and tangy.
I’ve been carrying around the amount of burrito I didn’t finish for about an hour and I’m concerned about developing repetitive strain damage. For $5.50, that’s an insane amount of good, tasty food, from not quite in the mission district and a free helping of some of the best tortilla chips of all time.

Buddha Bodai: eating vegan in NYC’s Chinatown

  

Vegan Thai and Chinese restaurants in big American cities are ten-a-penny, but I was keen to revisit a vegan Chinese restaurant in New York after a previous disastrous attempt with my parents.

My dad knows what he likes to eat – tofu carved into the shape of a chicken is not one of these things. We went expecting chow mein and we left slightly startled and still hungry. I fear that experience has put him off Asian eating for life. 

Although I’ve travelled to China since – and really enjoyed the choice and tastes of vegetarian food – I’ve always been a little unnerved by fake meat and things that are meant to resemble chicken feet or intestines but are actually tofu. 

We poked around San Francisco’s Chinatown – at 24 blocks, it’s the largest Chinatown outside of China, but already full and rolling from a hefty brunch at Herbivore we just couldn’t make room for dim sum. 

  

So an opportune day trip to New York arose in the form of a lengthy layover at JFK, and we decided to fully embrace a trip to Chinatown to Buddha Bodai to give vegan Chinese another go.

For $7.50 you get unlimited hot tea, a starter of soup or spring roll, rice, and an enormous plate of main meal (19 options!). These ranged from the weird (chicken nuggets in sauce, to the delicious, normal sounding broccoli and deep fried shiitake mushroom in sauce. 

  

It’s canteen style, with tables relatively close together and a busy, impersonal service, but the food is phenomenal.

I have never eaten such an incredible sweet sour soup in my whole life, and Sam, who eats meat, agrees. It’s a little over-thickened and the texture is a tad gloopy, but who the hell cares? It’s warm, and spicy, and sour without being rich and without any hint of that sticky red sweetness that constitutes a sweet and sour soup in London’s Chinatown. 

  

The spring roll had that pleasing crunch of pastry and slight ooze of oil that you hope for in a spring roll. Even better, you could taste the vegetables inside it – they were crunchy too and hadn’t just been denigrated to a slimy mush. 

The mains were a slightly mixed bag, but that’s only because I wanted to try the plate of bean curd skin, and in reflection, that was a mistake. The mushrooms and broccoli was a dish from another world. I hadn’t quite realised the mushroom would be deep fried and coated in a sticky, gelatinous sauce, so it was crunchy and sticky at the same time. 

  

Too tired after my bumpy-non sleeping night flight to even chew, (#firstworldproblems), Sam polished off most of two mains and the two starters and tea. 

  

It was a noble effort, and we waddled out of Chinatown and towards the subway, where I promptly fell asleep. 

Herbivore: where skinheads and hippies join hands and eat pancakes

“Sitting in the booth next to me is a tattooed man. He is a skinhead. He has a male partner who is looking enviously at the vegan gluten free lasagne that the waitress has just placed in front of him. 

We are sitting in a vegan restaurant, called herbivore. In front of him sits a half drunk spirulina infused pineapple juice. When he talks he has a Yorkshire accent. “I’m from Chesterfield,” he says. We momentarily reminisce about the leaning spire of Chesterfield (google it). He looks hard -tough knuckles kind of hard – and like the sort of man I used to avoid in Sheffield City centre on a Friday night.


Folks, this is San Francisco, where men with tough morals and tough fists eat vegan.”

I wrote this almost a year ago, when I visited San Francisco for the first time. Now I’m back, and I’ve dragged Sam to the Berkeley branch of the same restaurant.

The breakfast menu is staggeringly good for this area, and the price is great compared to other vegan restaurant places we’ve visited. This is my fourth visit to Herbivore, and each time I’m torn between trail mix choc chip pancakes, salsa and corn cakes, the breakfast burrito, or sausage, biscuits and gravy.

Luckily, this time I have an ally, so we split the corn cakes and pancakes, and to alleviate the guilt, get a green juice too.

As ever, it’s perfect. Vegan sour cream, creamy avocado, crunchy corn cakes and piquant tomato salsa. Amazing.

I always forget how little I like pancakes for breakfast, but feel compelled to order them in the U.S. Regardless. These are fine, but I hate having such a sweet, stodgy start to the day. And this day I’ve been up since 4.30am trying to meet a deadline for my book proposal. So my fingers are hungry at the very least.

So here’s to vegan breakfasteries, and the pleasure of shared breakfast meetings. 




Similies: exploring Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

The last few weeks have provided the writer within me a chance to fumble around with some wordplay, and produce some hugely awful and desperate similes. Even though you’ve barely drunk your morning coffee, I’d be damn surprised if you didn’t want to hear any of these excellent examples. So here goes: As many ____ as ghost tours in New Orleans. As many ____ as animal hospitals in West Hollywood. As many ____ as car angst scenes in the movie Shelter.

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And now I guess I can add: As many ____ as fresh food marketplaces in Berkeley, California.

I’ve been before. I suppose every vegan should one day make the pilgrimage to the home of California cuisine, and the town that kickstarted the vegan revolution (of sorts). Last time I came I was bowled over. London is doing many exciting things in its culinary scene at the moment, but none so thrilling as California’s: vegan cinnamon rolls at Cinnaholic; Cafe Gratitude‘s BLT; chocolate cake at Herbivore. Although probably tame and old news to Californians, from a Londoner’s perspective, where vegan food in comparison to the size of the city is lacking somewhat, Berkeley was mind-blowing to me.

After spending the last eight months actively hunting down vegan food around the world, it’s probably diminished in excitement, but it’s still the shrine; the original.

So, after a long drive down from Yosemite national park, we headed straight to Cinnaholic where I devoured a strawberry and cream cheese cinnamon roll washed down with lemonade. In desperate need of walking off my car fat (and now cake fat), we took a long walk around the UC Berkeley campus and hiked up and down Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto. When we’d worked up enough appetite, we headed to Cafe Gratitude.

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

We’d been so impressed with the LA location – the menu was enormous. This one was tiny, but had a vibrant selection of items. I picked my fave BLT (the bacon replaced by smoked coconut chips), and Sam chose the polenta bowl with mushrooms and greens. It was awesome, and I found myself picking at his meal the entire time – I can’t resist anything creamy when it’s so tough to make food creamy at home without turning it into a thai dish or a peanut butter flavoured dish! If only we had a surplus of avocados and cashew nuts back in England!

Now properly stuffed with food, we tootled down to the marina and strolled around the headland, watching people bring their boats in off the bay as the sun began to set over San Francisco. I spent far too much time staring in awe at the sky, when Sam reminded me we needed to speed up to be at our friend’s house for 7.30. I needn’t have worried leaving the sunset: their house is on the top of a hill in the bay area and overlooks the city, the Golden Gate bridge, and the ocean. It’s spectacular and is an absolute treat to be staying here. (So if either of them are reading – thank you!)

The view from Oakland hills over the bay

The view from Oakland hills over the bay