Carrie Steele finds mixed blessings along with some real culinary “wow” moments on her overseas travels.
HEADING TO A couple of big cities for our holiday this year, high on our list of priorities was to search out some vegan-friendly eateries to get a flavour of what we might be missing out on back in NZ.
Is the world a friendlier place for vegans in London, or New York?
We did discover a few little gems on our travels, but overall, vegan-friendly food can be just as hard to come by as back at home, and from a ‘size of population’ point of view, we vegans seem to be just as select a little group no matter what country we’re talking about.
With the Happy Cow app loaded on hubby’s smart phone before we left home, we set off to discover what looked to be the best on offer at each of our destinations. Along the way we had some terrific meals, and some not so terrific, but all were interesting eating experiences for one reason or another, and some well worthy of mention here.
The good old US of A is sugar coated, well we all know that. Though this trip, the extent of the sugar coating really started to annoy me. For instance, why do nuts have to be candied, even when in salads or breakfast dishes, and why does every cereal and every spread on offer contain sugar, and when you are lucky enough to find somewhere with a pot of oatmeal, unless you’re quick enough to pre-empt the nonsense, that arrives swimming in sticky syrup. Another thing, it quickly became patently obvious that the term ‘vegan’ is not well understood by many American wait staff, who when asked about options suitable for vegan diners are quick to cheerfully point out any vegetarian dishes on the menu, which always include dairy and eggs. Admittedly, we’ve experienced this lack of understanding elsewhere too, including at home in NZ.
On a brighter note though, we did discover an excellent café/fast food chain in New York called Fresh & Co, where not only did the staff actually know what vegan means, they even have options on the menu board clearly labelled vegan – so you don’t even need to ask, and if you do have a query about other dishes, questions are intelligently answered. We may have starved during our six days in New York had we not discovered Fresh & Co, and we enjoyed the freshly made food so much that some days we visited for lunch and dinner. With about 10 locations around Manhattan, you’re never too far from a branch, and though each one is slightly different, they all seemed as good as each other, fantastic big bowls of salad full of tasty ingredients well mixed, and the ‘warm salad’ bowls with quinoa were also delicious; not to mention at least two vegan soups on the menu each day and also tubs of vegan rice pudding available in the cabinet most days, and some great falafel wraps. It’s interesting that this chain of stores only currently exists in New York, and not in other states, perhaps indicating that the demographics of this vibrant city may just include a few more health conscious folk searching for something other than a big burger or a slice of greasy pizza.
Still in New York, Manhattan is also home to an amazingly good eatery called Franchia Vegan Café, at 12 Park Avenue. Interestingly, this is a Korean Vegan restaurant, which really intrigued me, especially since the local Korean restaurant in my neighbourhood here at home is so flesh focused that it features pictures of raw meat on the signboard, and always smells like the barbecue has caught fire. Franchia was nothing like that. The menu was extensive and tempting, including the choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and teas and in particular, the Korean fruit wines were fantastic! The service was fast and friendly and the surrounds were hip – even the ceiling is worthy of mention, covered in a stunning, painted mosaic befitting of a castle or cathedral. A couple of my favourites on the menu here were the “spicy Franchia rice noodles with peanuts, dried chili, vegetables & mushrooms” and the “kale and brown rice noodles” – shredded kale over brown rice noodles in black bean sauce with tofu balls. Don’t go thinking everything on the menu is noodle-based either – there was something for every taste and I could have dined at Franchia every night for a month before I started having to repeat dishes. Little wonder this place is busy most nights, it really offers the complete package: great food, efficient helpful staff and comfortable surroundings. I loved it, just loved it! If I had to get picky, the only thing I would say is that there’s quite a bit of name calling on the menu, meaning “chicken”, “beef”, “buffalo wings”, but of course we’re talking about vegan-friendly versions of these, and there’s certainly plenty of other dishes on offer which don’t try to emulate the meaty stuff. I’ve always been of the opinion that if you want the taste of chicken or meat, then just eat the real thing, but I can see that some of the dishes on Franchia’s menu would satisfy even the most ardent carnivore, so it could be a good marketing ploy to engage vegan and non-vegan diners equally.
In London, 222 Vegan at 222 North End Road West Kensington sounded like an interesting prospect. I couldn’t help but think that the name lacked any imagination, yet I had to admit that it took some balls to choose such a utilitarian name, which clearly would only ever attract, well, vegans, and was very unlikely to ever pick up any general walk-by business. On arrival the restaurant had a particularly unassuming exterior and interior, and was situated in a somewhat ‘grittier’ neighbourhood than where we were staying in Chelsea. However, none of these factors stopped the place from being overflowing with customers both nights we ate there. 222 Vegan caters for a variety of tastes and requirements, not only vegan, but also Gluten Free, Wheat Free, Raw and Organic. The “vegetarian roast” with potato and parsnip mash laced with fragrant herb and served with onion gravy and steamed french beans was real comfort food, and the “oyster mushroom and spinach raclette” – a combination of spinach and tofu cottage cheese on a bed of roast potatoes, topped with sautéed oyster mushrooms and a light creamy sauce was divine. The desserts here were quite something too: hubby and I both loved the “spice island pie”, a delicious raw dessert of cashew and almond cream flavoured with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg on a crunchy nut and coconut base, and the “rich chocolate torte” was just as described – “a rich, pure raw chocolate treat”. I just love raw desserts and the offerings here were as good as any I’ve had. We were certainly pleased that we had made reservations both nights we ate here, because on both these nights people were waiting for tables, which attests to how good the food is at this little gem.
Totally different in ambience to 222, we also now have another London favourite. Tucked away up a side street off Portobello Road in Notting Hill, we found Nama Artesian Raw Food Café at 110 Talbot Road. Nama is small but perfect, recently relocated to this swish little premises in a block of shops just before the start of the terraced suburban neighbourhood in this super trendy part of London. As it turned out, apparently we were not the first Kiwis to have been led here by the aforementioned app, which led the waitress to enquire whether we had a lot of ‘raw foodies’ back at home? After we’d stopped laughing, we let her down as gently as we could, and tried to make amends by ordering lavishly off the menu. We lingered quite a while over white tea (try it if you get the chance – it’s lovely) and green tea before deciding it was time to leave, before we weakened and ordered anything else that we really didn’t have room in our tummies for. It was hard to leave, knowing it might be a very long time before we could visit again and enjoy the likes of the “falafel wrap with pumpkin seed and sundried tomato falafel mix” with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, courgette and cashew nut hummus, rolled in a dehydrated vege wrap, and the “marinated kale salad” with hemp seeds, sundried tomatoes, cucumber and pumpkin seed dressing, followed by “fermented blueberry cheesecake” and “chocolate ganache tart”. This place was quite expensive, but it was a real treat and will be remembered fondly as a little oasis of peace amongst the busy market stands and the buzz of Portobello Road.
On a day trip out of London, we visited the Green Rocket Vegetarian Café, Bath’s ‘newest vegetarian café’, which of course alludes to Bath having other vegetarian cafés and had we been there longer than a few hours, it would have been great to see what others had to offer. Still, the Green Rocket did not disappoint and we spent an hour of our limited time in Bath sitting in the pretty surroundings (loved the lampshades fashioned out of upturned enamel colanders!) over a leisurely late lunch. On the corner of North Parade and Pierrepont Street in the heart of Bath, the outdoor seating at the café takes in views of nearby Bath Abbey and Parade Gardens, which would be lovely on a warm, sunny day. I chose the “warm salad of maple and thyme roasted root vegetables on a bed of quinoa and leaves topped marinated tofu”, and hubby had the “mushroom, sundried tomato and basil rice burger served with a green salad and vegan cashew cheese”. We also tried a couple of their juices, the “green rocket” – apple, cucumber, broccoli, celery, parsley and spirulina, and the “classic”, carrot, orange and ginger. Both were delicious. The Green Rocket café also opens for dinner three nights a week and the menu options looked interesting. Being a small café (about five tables inside) I can imagine it would be very busy at peak times, and even at 3pm when we visited three of the five tables were occupied and people were coming and going for takeaway drinks and cakes.
Also worthy of mention on our travels were the vegan ‘special meals’ we pre-ordered on Air NZ and Virgin Atlantic long distance flights. On both flights this included a dinner and a breakfast and it was heartening to see that some effort had gone into establishing a suitable format, which covered the vegetarian/vegan option as one. I think this is an excellent idea and one that I would like to see taken up by cafés and restaurants on a wide basis. It is no longer good enough in my opinion to offer vegetarian options if these all include dairy and eggs. That is old fashioned, outdated thinking and one that shows some naivety. In developing restaurant menus it would be a natural point of progression to ensure that at least one, but preferably more of any vegetarian option are vegan. If airlines can manage this, then I can’t see why all eating establishments can’t do the same.
Not all of our meal choices were as memorable as the aforementioned ones. I can’t resist poking a stick at the Subway salad I purchased to eat on a train trip from Connecticut back to New York; it was probably the worst salad I’ve ever had: very little other than chipped iceberg, some very acid pickles and a very acidic French dressing. In fact It was so acidic I couldn’t actually finish it, as each mouthful produced a round of barely suppressed coughing, and I did not want to take the risk of any fellow passengers picking me up and flinging me over the back of a seat in an effort to dislodge whatever item they imagined I might be choking on. I’d been hoping that the Subway salad would surpass a previous meal I’d eaten on an American train, which, wait for it, was listed on the menu card as a “vegan burger”, which sounded so hopeful. However, the patty had turned out to be more like something conjured up in a science lab, with a list of ingredients so long that the font size on the outside of the plastic wrapper was reduced to about size 2. That didn’t prevent my eagle-eyed hubby from reading through the list whilst we were chomping, which detracted from the experience about as much as the fact that the patty was so tasteless we may as well have eaten a piece of our seat cushion. Another low point food-wise was the “baby spinach and pecan salad” I ordered in a hotel restaurant which sounded so hopeful, and would have been fine had the pecan nuts not been so heavily candied that it tasted more like a dessert than a lunch, this being the same restaurant that got to my breakfast oatmeal before I did and covered it in maple syrup which floated on the top like an oil slick.
Aside from the Fresh & Co chain which we stumbled on ourselves, the other gems were all featured on the Happy Cow app, and so were on our list to hunt down long before the big Boeing took off from Auckland Airport with our happy little faces on board. So I’d suggest that it’s an app worth downloading when travelling.
Now that I’m back home, I’m keen to seek out and try a few possible options that I haven’t visited yet. It will be interesting to see how they compare. What I liked the most about the places I’ve talked about here, was that all served a generous, wholesome plate of food, and all resisted the temptation of trying to turn these vegan meals into any kind of ‘fine dining experience’, which only made the food more memorable in my opinion. Bon appétit! CARRIE STEELE