|Vegan caramel slice – oh yes please!|
Henderson’s Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review – “Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such ‘vital’ ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter?”
Hello. My name is Chris. I, I recently went out for an entirely vegan meal. And… erm… I very much enjoyed it. There, I’ve admitted it! You’re possibly wondering how someone who purports to love dining, and writing about the experience, could seemingly be so jokingly reticent about a dinner that happens to feature no animal-derived produce? I shall try to explain.
Back in my youth I was vegetarian for several years and, because of an inaccurate assessment that I might have an intolerance to dairy products, vegan for several months. This was a time when the range of vegan ingredients, and recipes that guided how best to utilise what was available, seemed much more limited than today. And consequently, I did struggle with a vegan diet.
Fast forward to the present, and the currently vogueish movement described as ‘clean eating’ has gained substantial interest, as well as some not insignificant criticism. And whilst not exclusively focused on veganism, the diet does feature in several books and websites that enthusiastically promote the eating of ‘clean’ food.
However, all this being said, when JML and I arranged to dine with a couple of friends, one of whom is a vegan, Henderson’s Vegan Restaurant, on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, seemed like the obvious choice. Yet still little doubts crept into my mind. Would the food be sufficiently appetising? Might the venue be a veritable temple where beautiful types who wished to eat themselves ‘clean’ came to worship? I need not have been concerned on either count.
|Tasty cauliflower ‘steaks’ with mushroom & pepper sauce.|
Formerly a bistro forming part of the larger Henderson’s warren-like restaurant/deli/takeaway premises, this particular part of the establishment has been exclusively vegan since 2015. Walking through the door, ‘veganist’ preconception number one was immediately shattered, as the cosy restaurant displayed no trace of being perfumed by incense, scattered with organic bean bags, or sound tracked by whale song. Instead, we were greeted by a casually-trendy, Scandi-Scottish space featuring Nordic-inspired furniture, funky tweed-upholstered banquets, and ‘crazy-paving’ parquet.
So, the restaurant may have achieved a big tick for style, but might that be concealing a menu that was as dull as the vegan cooking of my student days? I shall let what we were served answer that particular clichéd, veganist question. JML and our friend JW both started with the soup of the day, which happened to be roast red pepper and butternut squash, accompanied by sourdough bread. Rich, smooth and hearty this was really flavoursome, with the sweetness of the roast veg being highlighted by the addition of an earthy hint derived from delicate spices. The sourdough was very good too, whether baked on the premises or bought in.
|Tasty haggis – meat free.|
As our dining conversation centred on music, I shall refer to the fourth member of our group as Siouxsie, who began with a dish of oblongs of crispy grilled polenta – nicely seasoned and possibly enhanced with a pinch of paprika – accompanied by a generous serving of garlic-tastic tofu aioli, which was as creamy and flavoursome as any equivalent made from non-vegan ingredients. If the soup and polenta were good, I think the real star of our entrées was my freekeh (a cracked and roasted young green wheat for those not in the know) salad, with kale, butternut squash, pear, grapes, and almond flakes, all doused in a cumin-maple dressing. This dish – which Siouxsie also chose as bathtub-sized main – was a superb take on the Middle Eastern culinary art of contrasting sweet, savoury, and multitudinous textures. I would gladly make a return visit for this dish alone.
So we were clearly off to a very promising start with – appropriately enough – our starters, but would our meat-free mains be equally impressive? JW and JML were again in synchrony with their choice of haggis and root mash with red wine gravy and chantenay carrots. This was a dish that both looked and tasted terrific. Rather than using some non-descript vegetable protein that tried to be a facsimile of flesh, the haggis was pulse-based, which gave it a pleasant texture whilst still retaining the spicy flavour base to be found in ‘normal’ haggis, and it was an approach that really worked. The root mash combined with a deeply flavoursome wine-based sauce were the perfect accompaniments to the haggis, with the sweet carrots providing further, tasteful gilding.
Siouxsie agreed with my assessment that the ‘freaky’ salad was just as delicious served as a main, even if her portion could have easily fed a small family. My choice of principal dish may have subconsciously resulted from the only overt mention of something meaty on the menu. The cauliflower ‘steaks’ – though in no way carnivorous – were delicious, consisting of a couple of slabs of perfectly roast brassica that were further enhanced through subtle addition of spice, either cumin or fennel in this case. Accompanied by a mushroom and peppercorn sauce that was so tastily creamy it was hard to believe there was no dairy involved in its production, and freshly pickled red cabbage, which provided a lovely fresh acidity, this was a great dish.
|Avocado and lime ‘cheese’ cake – who’d have thought?|
Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such ‘vital’ ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter? Well that would be another veganist cliché busted, as the three sweets we ordered proved this certainly was not the case. Chocolate nut cake – as the name might suggest – was moist, nutty and packed a cocoa-laden punch, made all the more lovely by the accompanying vanilla ice ‘cream’ (which I assume might have been soya based). The caramel slice had a nicely crisp – possibly oatie – base, topped by a gooey wedge of toffee-flavoured fondant. Possibly a wee bit denser than a ‘school-dinner classic’ version, but not diminished by that fact at all. Avocado and lime ‘cheese’ cake was a revelation. Silky smooth, but again with an oatie base crunch, the balance of spiky lime and the grassy creaminess of the avocado was as satisfyingly rich as any traditional cheesecake I have encountered, and nicely complemented by a tangy fruit coulis.
Finishing our meal by supping some excellent espressos, we mulled over how enjoyable our food had been, as well as the very palatable glasses of Rioja, and excellent organic cider and perry we had variously chosen to accompany our meal. And mention was also made of the friendly and efficient service, too.
I must confess that in places this review has pandered to stereotypes on what it means to eat vegan. Purposely so. All too often, those of us who choose to eat animals or their products view those who don’t with ignorant curiosity, dismissiveness, or a mixture of both. Yet the politics behind abstaining from consuming animals – in whatever form – cannot be ignored. At the very least there must be an acceptance that, with a changing global climate, and an ever-expanding global population, deriving nutrition substantially from animal sources is utterly unsustainable. Those eating vegan are usually more than aware of this. Maybe it’s time those of us who aren’t vegan put aside our prejudices, and gave such issues more consideration.
Whatever the politics, judging by our experience, a vegan meal at Henderson’s is as memorable as it is delicious. The place most definitely holds its own amongst non-vegan equivalents. So much so that I hope to be a regular visitor.
Ambience – Expect a trendily relaxed bistro.