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The best flexitarian restaurants in the UK | Tony Naylor

Less meat, more vegetables: that’s the flexitarian ethos, and it’s one that chefs are starting to notice. These 10 ‘flexi’ UK restaurants are all prioritising their greens.

THE KITCHEN GARDEN The Pig near Bath

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Given its name, the poultry reared on site and the 35-day-aged ribeye on the menu, you might imagine that this comfy restaurant with rooms is a veggie nightmare. Far from it. Chef Kamil Oseka is crazy about the fresh veg delivered to his door by The Pig’s kitchen gardener, Ollie Hutson: ‘We pick radishes two hours before service and they’re so crunchy and have such flavour. They’re completely different from anything shop-bought – same with tomatoes, beans and basil.’ In summer,

Kamil preserves huge gluts of this exceptional produce to use throughout winter.

Sitting in The Pig’s Victorian greenhouse dining room, eating quails eggs dipped in celery salt, caramelised onion tart with foraged mushrooms or a risotto of diced yacon (an artichoke relative, grown here), who needs meat? ‘We take vegetarians seriously,’ stresses Kamil. ‘If I’m not too busy, I’ll take people to the garden, give them a pair of scissors and let them pick what they want. Then I cook it for them straight away.’ Mains from £11.

Kamil’s star of the show: ‘Beetroot. It grows nearly year-round; you can roast it, pickle it, purée it and it works with everything – mains, desserts and starters, like my white bean and horseradish soup.’


THE CURRY MASTER Curry Leaf Café, Brighton

Vegetarian food is central to Indian life. Kanthi Kiran Thamma, chef at the strippedback, colourful Curry Leaf Café, explains: ‘Meat is expensive in India. I was raised in a lower-middle-class family where it was a once-a-week, Sunday thing. My mother grew vegetables in her garden, so the rest of the week we ate the vegetarian food she made using her own fresh produce.’

As Kanthi deftly illustrates, in dishes such as gutti vankaya (spice paste-stuffed aubergine, poached in a simple tomato sauce) or kai kari kurma (a mixed veg dish thickened with poppy seeds and coconut), the centrality of vegetables to Indian cooking means the subcontinent has an extraordinary repertoire of meat-free dishes: ‘Tempering – or tarka – is really important in vegetarian cooking, especially with lentils. Fry whole spices in oil; curry leaves, mustard seeds, fenugreek, chilli, cumin, ginger, garlic. Add the lentils at the end, and those fresh flavours take the dish to a new level.’ Mains from £12.

Kanthi’s star of the show: ‘Carrots. Dishes like sambhar and any vegetable curry have to have carrot in them, and it’s used in India’s most popular dessert, the sweet, sticky gajar halwa.’


THE VEGETARIAN VANGUARD Café Paradiso, Cork, Ireland

‘The idea was to open a mainstream place, working with vegetables, where the focus was on civilised pleasure: complex flavours and texture, and what I call “knife and fork” eating, rather than scooping stuff up with a spoon,’ says Café Paradiso chef-owner Denis Cotter.

Twenty-one years later, Cork’s elegant, laidback Café Paradiso remains in the vanguard of creative vegetarian cooking. Inspired by bright, vibrantly spiced Mediterranean and Asian food, many of Denis’s dishes are now house classics, such as his sweet chilli tofu with pak choy and noodles in tamarind-coconut broth, or feta and pistachio couscous cake with smoky greens, lemon chickpeas and coriander yogurt. Elements of these are tweaked to react to ingredients arriving from nearby Gort na Nain Farm, a close collaborator.

As for meat, Denis doesn’t miss it at all, saying: ‘There’s much more fun to be had with vegetables.’ Two courses, €33.

Denis’s star of the show: ‘Aubergine. It’s so useful. Our roasted aubergine starter with miso butter has amazing umami things going on.’


THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY Grain Store, King’s Cross

In France, Bruno Loubet’s family loved foraging and growing their own vegetables. Consequently, he’s always loved veg, and was toying with the idea of opening a veg-centric restaurant as long as 20 years ago. ‘Then, it seemed crazy. As a French restaurant chef, people have expectations of you.’

At Grain Store, however – a cool, open-plan King’s Cross warehouse space – Bruno has shaken off those expectations in style. Here, dishes are designed with vegetables at the forefront, and only small amounts of meat used as a potent garnish: Grain Store’s star dish, for instance, is a sprouting bean and seed salad served on aubergine miso purée, dressed with yuzu, potato crisps (‘posh Pringles,’ laughs Bruno) and shards of chicken skin. He says: ‘It’s a powerful message to say that we can still eat interesting food using a quarter of the meat – because it’s obvious the future is about vegetables. Meat destroys the planet; not only that, but using lots of veg has led to an exciting rediscovery of cooking.’ Mains from £11.50.

Bruno’s star of the show: ‘Potatoes. You can use them 150 ways – mashed, galette, pommes soufflé, using the starch to make biscuits… and everybody loves them.


THE FIELD-TO-FORK FARMER Winteringham Fields, Lincolnshire

‘I wouldn’t have known how to plant an artichoke five years ago,’ says chef Colin McGurran. Today he manages eight acres of livestock and arable land at his restaurantwith- rooms, Winteringham Fields, which, in summer, is 85 per cent self-sufficient. ‘I still don’t know the Latin names of vegetables, but I know how things grow and what I’m looking for – which inspires how I serve it.’

Working the land and regularly picking fresh produce has transformed Colin’s cooking philosophy. Like most fine-dining chefs, he used to focus on hunks of meat garnished with vegetables. Now he serves dishes such as a gazpacho salad with feta and, on his tasting menu, a baked-from-thefields course – perhaps onion with spätzle dumplings, caramelised onion, and onion and cardamom textures. ‘There’s only so much you can do with a piece of lamb, but the options with vegetables are limitless. You can marinate, pickle or roast a pepper and it’s an explosion of flavours on the plate from just one ingredient. I like exploring that.’ Tasting menu, from £69.

Colin’s star of the show: ‘Celeriac. It very versatile, with a lovely aniseed flavour, and it’s good with rich meats and also delicate things like scallops. Our celeriac lasagne is incredible.’


THE QUIET EVANGELIST Damson Media City, Salford

Years ago, when Steve Pilling was an aspiring professional squash player, he went vegetarian. It didn’t last, but since then he has only eaten meat in small quantities: ‘If I eat vegetarian, I feel better the next day: I think it’s less traumatic for the body. Yesterday my Sunday dinner was 2oz of chicken with a plateful of delicious vegetables.’

That personal ethos is reflected in Steve’s smart-casual restaurant in Salford’s Media City. The menu is a meaty feast, but Steve also offers a vegetarian à la carte and, on Tuesdays, a meat-free tasting menu (six courses, £30). To Steve, catering creatively to neglected vegetarians and fellow flexitarians is simple: many Damson dishes are modular, so the meat is optional. For instance, the slow-cooked duck egg with baby gem, peas and parmesan fondue comes with or without smoked pancetta crumb. Mains from £18.95.

Steve’s star of the show: ‘Jerusalem artichokes. If you’ve ever tasted our artichoke flan, you’ll know why. They’ve a high satiety value and a delicate flinty finish. I love them.’


THE POP-UP PIONEERS Grub & Grog Shop, Leeds

Britain’s street food and pop-up scene is dominated by burgers and dude food, but Jim and Dan, the two twenty-somethings behind Leeds’ Grub & Grog Shop, are radically different. Now permanent fixtures at the Northern Monk Refectory brewpub

(@NMBCoRefectory), about half of their menu is vegan and vegetarian. ‘We’re not vegetarians,’ says Jim, ‘but I eat meat once a week at most. It’s an ethical thing, and we don’t feel meat is essential to a meal.’

Inspired by key books (The Flavour Thesaurus, The Ethicurean Cookbook) and awesome supplies from Tadcaster Organic Pantry farm, the duo love to experiment with slow-cooking techniques or salting and pickling, to create innovative dishes such as their celeriac porridge (pictured above). They also cook with hops and malt from the on-site brewery. ‘It took a while to figure out how to extract the hops’ citrussy flavour,’ says Jim, ‘but now we use them a lot, making syrups for salads or rolling pan-fried parsnip cakes in malt and rosemary.’ Mains from £6.

Jim’s star of the show: ‘Kohlrabi, for its unique flavour. It’s unusual – nutty and sulphurous like broccoli, but really sweet. Eaten raw, it’s really crisp like apple; cooked, it goes almost like turnips.’


THE SEASONAL STAR Askham Hall, Cumbria

Richard Swale works in an environment most chefs would kill for. His sunny, conservatory-style restaurant at historic Askham Hall opens out onto acres of its own kitchen gardens and farmland. However, dealing seasonally with all that stunning produce requires quick thinking and nimble improvisation, from cleverly using crab apples as an acidic seasoning to creating vegetarian menus inspired by what ingredients look best that day. (‘Pick, cook and serve vegetables within the hour,’ says Richard, ‘and their freshness is amazing.’)

The kitchen is often busy pickling damsons or preserving edible flowers,either to deal with gluts or to extend theshelf life of ingredients.Meat used to be the centrepiece ofRichard’s dishes, but now he gives equalprominence to his creatively treatedvegetables. He might, for instance, addfermented cabbage to salads or servescallops with smoky courgette flowers,flash-cooked in the wood-fired oven.Menus from £45.

Richard’s star of the show: ‘Hispi cabbage. Freshly picked and wilted, it has an amazing clean and crisp, healthy flavour – you can really taste the garden.’


THE FORAGING FLEXITARIAN Auberge Du Lac, Hertfordshire

It was chef Claude Bosi who influenced Marcus McGuinness’s approach to food presentation. At his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Hibiscus, Bosi would tell his team: ‘You should be able to eat the garnishes as a delicious dish, then add the protein element and it’s still delightful.’

It was this philosophy that Marcus brought to Auberge du Lac – a refined, lakeside restaurant at Brocket Hall country house – and one which, he says, many chefs are adopting: ‘Things are changing as people discover what you can do with veg. You can only coax so much flavour from meat and fish, where vegetables give you a much bigger palette to paint from.’

Naturally, the menu bristles with game and seafood, but Auberge’s veggie dishes still shine. Marcus incorporates fine ingredients, including those foraged on ‘treasure hunts’ around this 543-acre country estate, into plates such as meadowsweet panna cotta with apple, or mushroom risotto with aged parmesan, peach and pistachios. Fruit regularly appears in Marcus’s savoury dishes, too: ‘I find it sneaks in. It gives a balanced acidity and sweetness to dishes.’ Dinner from £39.50.

Marcus’s star of the show: ‘Chervil roots. They’re almost honeyed, sweeter than parsnip and have a nutty hint that I love. They remind me of Crunchy Nut cornflakes.’


THE URBAN GARDEN The Dairy, Clapham

‘My whole idea was to create a farm-to-table experience in the city,’ says Robin Gill, whose rooftop garden of raised beds and beehives supplies his hip, foodist Clapham restaurant, The Dairy – and its sister venue, The Manor (themanorclapham.co.uk) – with everything from top-quality carrots to, in summer, eight varieties of mint.

Robin fell in love with seasonality and precise vegetarian cookery while working in Italy and at Le Manoir, and that passion has fed into The Dairy’s sharp, modern cooking. The main menu’s garden section is supplemented by a dedicated menu of vegetarian tasting plates, which might include elaborate textures of pea served with fried bread (‘It’s only peas, but it knocks people out’), or cauliflower served with crispy kale and dulse seaweed, fermented so that it takes on a cheesy flavour.

Robin wants every plate, and not least the vegetarian dishes, to be an experience. ‘I’m looking for acidity, sweetness, salt, texture and an umami that’ll bring it all together. You want to be wowed by it.’ Plates from £5.50.

Robin’s star of the show: ‘Cauliflower. You can get a lot of different flavours out of it. Eaten raw, it tastes nutty, but when you roast it for a long, long time, it turns very sweet.’


Other restaurant stories from Tony Naylor…

The Beagle, Manchester

Adam’s, Birmingham

Manchester House, Manchester

Bundobust, Leeds

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