[Written for the Brixton Bugle]
I can’t deny being a meat eater and loving it. The draw for me usually comes in the intensity of the flavour that you miss with a vegetarian or vegan diet. And there’s actual science to back that up since flavour molecules react to fat, which seafood and meat naturally have much more of.
That said, some of the best food I’ve eaten and certainly some of the most handsome dishes I’ve seen, have been made up purely of vegetables. The mix of colours, textures, the variety in flavour – it’s something you couldn’t achieve in a plate of food hailing solely from the meat or dairy family. What’s more, I take my hat off to the chefs who dedicate their time to making the most of these wonderful natural resources we have growing all around us, and avoiding unnecessary slaughter. And to top it off, if you believe what they say in the papers, you’d know there are proven health benefits to a meat-free diet.
Though I could never commit to it full-time, I’m a big supporter of vegetarian food and I’d like to see more restaurants showing us meat eaters what we’re missing. Vegbar on Tulse Hill is a little under a year old and claims to be South London’s first 100% vegan restaurant. Having never been, I was excited to see what creativity they had in store.
The unassuming entrance gives way to a big, bright space with an open plan kitchen. A couple of young and inexperienced-looking waiting staff are milling about and it’s stereotypically casual service. The walls are plastered with posters of musical influences – and someone working there clearly has a thing for vegan hero Morrissey. Downstairs they have a live music venue open until 11pm on weekends, and a punk-themed line up.
The drinks menu has enough on it to keep you happy – pints of Heineken, gin cocktails and house wine. The red was more sweet than I’d have liked but it wasn’t all that bad.
But that’s when the disappointment really started. The food menu – to put it simply – was uninspiring. I’d been ready to see a menu packed with wild mushrooms, roasted beetroot, the freshest of avocados and deeply-smoked tofu. But there was none of that. Instead, there were imitation meats and easy-way-out mains.
The menu isn’t split into courses, though it did have two price-indicating starters: a soup and a tofu frittata. We chose to share the latter which came served with a too-much-vinegar dressing. The frittata itself was as dry, crumbly and lacked any trace of seasoning.
My burger-loving other half excitedly went straight for the jackfruit sandwich. Jackfruit is the national fruit of Bangladesh and he’d been wanting to try it ever since reading about its similarity to pulled pork. I totally get it! If I was vegan I’d eat this the whole time. Unfortunately corners had been cut on the simple things such as the bread bun, wilted lettuce and unmelted cheese substitute. In a time where detail is more and more important, those things really let it down. It was also swimming in way too much barbecue sauce, which overpowered the jackfruit and took away its starring role.
Other menu items included macaroni with pesto sauce and aubergine boats with a tomato sauce – both priced above £10 which seems a bit of a rip off, given their simplicity and cost base.
My ‘Seitan wings’ were reportedly the star of Vegbar‘s menu. But three down, I’d already had more than I could take. Seitan is a wheat gluten, usually used as a meat substitute and in the case of these ‘wings’, it wasn’t doing a particularly convincing undercover job. Each edge had soaked up an uneasy amount of oil and left an aftertaste I just couldn’t get rid of. The texture was like nothing I’ve tasted before and certainly gave my jaw a workout. I’d happily eat the hot sauce again though.
I almost feel bad for not liking Vegbar, because I wholly support their intentions and I do think Brixton has a place for a vegan restaurant. But in all honesty, the food and ambiance just didn’t live up to my desires.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. The manager was keen to tell us that they’re in the process of reinventing their menu to move away from imitating meat classics and offering more of the fresh veggies and pulses I’d been hoping to see. If that’s the case then I’d love to go back and give Vegbar another go. Until then, giving up meat probably won’t be this year’s resolution.