Natural Bar and Kitchen, Birmingham

Over two years ago, I volunteered for a week at the Vegan Society, Birmingham. It was a memorable experience that introduced me to a community of like-minded vegans, and saw me living out of a hotel alone for a week.

During that time, I ate a couple of time at Natural Bar and Kitchen, a vegan eatery just out of the Hill Street exit of Birmingham New Street. I was delighted by the array of food on offer at the buffet and vowed to come back again in the future.

Fast forward a mere matter of months, and I stepped in with my two oldest friends for a catch-up lunch. The circumstances were a little different: one of us is researching for a PhD at the University of Warwick, and as she said “Coventry is s****”, we selected Birmingham as our designated meeting-place instead.

We all opted for the buffet, which was packed with dishes you’d happily eat a plateful of by themselves: cauliflower cheese; potato curry; sausage stew. We dished up with these and more – roasted root veggies, mash, coconut rice, salad – and took them up to the counter to be weighed. Where I remembered having paid around £12-13 for my dinner on the previous occasion, I watched this time as the cashier applied a discount to take it down to under £10. Winner. (Or perhaps I’m still mistaken for a student.)

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Afterwards, we went for dessert and hot chocolate. Navigating the desserts fridge, where nothing was labelled, meant going for a little potluck – still, banana bread and a scoop of vanilla ice cream went down well. What didn’t go down well, however, was my friend’s hot chocolate – with the plant milk separating pretty badly. Perhaps not what you’d want to see if you weren’t vegan and were curious about alternative milks.

Nevertheless – a pleasant experience and a really good vegan gem. If you’re out and about Birmingham, do visit Natural Bar and Kitchen for healthy, tasty vegan food.

 

 

 

Mildred’s, Soho

Once upon a time I wrote about my visit to Mildred’s. Back in my meat-eating days, I was open to the idea of trying out vegan and veggie food, and Mildred’s didn’t disappoint – particularly to a wee whippersnapper who’d yet to see anything of the unfurling vegan scene.

I’ve been back to Mildred’s a few times since that memorable day, including to the King’s Cross branch (less busy than Soho). Each time is a pleasant experience of reasonably tasty food, served relatively quickly at a reasonable price.

At Mildred’s, you can choose the classic formula of starter, main and dessert. Mains include burgers, curry, and a ‘soul bowl’. Or, you can opt for an array of starters and share amongst yourselves – a good way to sample the flavours on offer.

I thought the food this time was OK – well-presented, but not packing much of a forceful punch in the flavour department.

What I really wanted to touch upon in this post was what happens when a vegan/veggie restaurant amplifies in popularity. Mildred’s is Exhibit A: branches popping up in different locations, but queues still out the door. At peak times, you’re squeezed on to closely-knit tables and can eavesdrop on your neighbour’s conversation, should you wish.

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Tofu noodle dish @ Mildred’s

While I enjoyed the tofu noodle dish I ordered on my last visit, I could recognise the restaurant technique of salt substituted for flavour. This is something Mildred’s shares with The Gate, another veggie chain operating across London – artful plates in a semi-swanky environment, with rather good cocktails, but with food that will leave you feeling parched.

I wonder if Mildred’s has perhaps suffered from its popularity explosion. You feel slightly under pressure to make your trip a short one, and the food somewhat lacks.

And, just as happened four years ago, I almost walked into the stock room on my way to the loo.

Vegan in London: Top Five Places to Eat

It’s been a while!

Since my last post, things have changed for me. In April 2018, I moved to London and began my first professional job at a legal publishing group. It’s been a very rich and varied experience so far, although it’s come with its twists, turns and bumps in the road.

Living in London is whatever you want to make of it. There is a huge diversity in arts, culture, music, sport, everything. In terms of food, there’s a multiplicity of abundance and more choice than you could want. And it goes without saying that vegan food in London is unparalleled anywhere else in the UK.

In my year and a half in this booming city, I’ve been steadily making my way through eveyrthing the vegan scene has to offer – which is akin to trying to paddle towards the end of a never-ending stream, as new places/options crop up. To ease myself back into this blog – which regretfully went on the backburner as I learned how to balance work with my other interests – I have compiled my current top five cafes/restaurants.

5. Biff’s Jack Shack

Biff’s has a special place in my heart. When I arrived in London, untarnished by the allures of vegan junk food, the jackfruit wings at Biff’s little spot in Boxpark, Shoreditch were the first ‘naughty’ option I tried. And I’ve been a convert to them since. Yes, it’s fruit, but it’s fried and fatty and flavourful. The texture has widely been compared to pulled pork, but it’s lighter and easier on the arteries. Biffs’ loaded fries are also a force to be reckoned with.

You can now find Biff’s wings at 100 selected pubs across the country – check their website.

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Boxpark is not known for its lighting – Biff’s jackfruit wings and burger with loaded fries

4. Unity Diner

I’ve happy memories of Unity Diner in its orginal Hoxton location, before its recent move to Spitalfields (riding the waves of its own success). Unity Diner was co-founded by Ed Winters, aka Earthling Ed, a fantastic vegan activist – the most level-headed, calm and convincing spokesperson for the movement I’ve ever seen. All profits from the diner go to Surge, a animal rights campaigning group. Here, you can tuck into a wicked range of burgers, hot dogs and veganised classics such as tofish and chips and mac ‘n’ cheese. I’m looking forward to trying the new range of vegan-friendly cocktails on my next visit.

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The Surge burger

3. Tibits

Oh, Tibits, I love you. Self-serve vegetarian and vegan food from all cuisines – think risotto, curry, pasta – piled on to plate with each and any accompaniment of your desire. Tibits is where you can pair beetroot salad with tofu, hummus and kimchi. I get very excited at Tibits, and it’s best to exercise a little self-control to keep the plate to a reasonable price. But it’s a haven for veggies.

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There’s nothing missing

2. Purezza

The best vegan pizza spot in the country (along with its sister branch in Brighton). This is pizza, not just vegan pizza, at its finest – the award they won over non-vegan pizzas at the 2018 National Pizza Awards is testament to this. I’ve been here several times and plan on coming plenty more. Opt for the Pesto Manifesto – you’ve not tried pesto like this. There are gluten-free bases and even a raw pizza. (And if you’ve got a really impressive appetite, I dare you to order the Oreo pizza for dessert.)

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Pesto Manifesto (with ginger Jarr kombucha)

1. Cafe Van Gogh, Brixton.

My current favourite cafe in London. Why do I love it? By description, it’s perfect: a non-profit social enterprise offering a fully vegan menu. It’s a small homely space in the grounds of a church, with Van Gogh prints on the walls and a starry night painted on the inside of the domed ceiling.

The food is really top-rate, with so much flavour and utilising lots of fresh and healthy ingredients. The mushroom bourguignon I had on my first visit was one of the tastiest vegan meals I’ve ever eaten, and their desserts are also superb.

If I haven’t convinced you – I guess you’ll have to try it for yourself.

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Mushroom bourguignon

More London vegan spots to come!

Eating vegan in central Manchester

Exploring cities as a vegan has never been easier. Options are continually expanding, with new plant-based eateries springing up regularly.

On a recent break in Manchester, I got a taste of what this culturally vibrant city has to offer for vegans. My twin brother lives here, and as a vegan himself, he was happy to tag along and try out some new places. So, here’s my run-down of some of Manchester’s best vegan options!

The Eighth Day Co-operative on Oxford Road doubles as a big health food shop, and a café serving organic vegetarian and vegan food. You can buy a range of products from supplements to bean-to-bar chocolate. The café serves really good, healthy food, varying daily. You can expect a cooked breakfast, sandwiches, dishes such as dahls and casseroles, and homemade cakes and puddings. I’d recommend Eighth Day as a great choice for an affordable lunch or a spot of tea.

If you’re planning on visiting Manchester Museum, its in-house café The Teacup (with another branch on Thomas Street) is a quick lunch-time option. There’s a reasonable falafel sandwich on offer, with a range of salads; check to see which ones are vegan. Take your coffee black – the soya will curdle. A vegan chocolate brownie is also available.

A trip to the Northern Quarter is a must, for its array of shops and nearby cultural offerings, such as Chetham’s Library and the National Football Museum (not one for me). If you’re particularly hungry, I’d recommend Earth Café for a hot plate of food and a cold drink. All food is sourced from the market a few yards away, and served up as dishes including chickpea curry, lasagne and vegan roulade. You can choose two mains and two accompanying dishes – rice, potatoes, salad – for a mere £7. I thoroughly enjoyed the food, the relaxed atmosphere, and the friendly service.

One place I missed was Real Junk Food, an outlet on Oxford Street looking to change attitudes towards food waste. They intercept food that would otherwise go straight to landfill, and craft it into meals. Instead of paying a set price for an item, they ask for a pay-as-you-feel donation.

Within the huge indie emporium that is Afflecks, you can find the vegan Beach Hut café, serving jerk jack fruit and Ital curries. Heroes Café also have some vegan options.

For dinner, Manchester has no shortage of chain restaurants such as Pizza Express, Ask Italian, and Zizzi. Burrito bars are popular and cost-effective, including Pancho’s and Chilangos. At the former, you can pack a generous portion of tofu or chilli, beans, salsa and salad into a spinach wrap, for a very good price.

If junk food is your thing, there’s no excuse to miss V Rev, the northern Temple of Seitan. For something different, try Asian cuisine at Lotus Vegetarian Kitchen or Jaipur Palace.

Mowgli, founded only in 2014, serves fantastic Indian street food in tiffin boxes. Its separate vegan menu offers plenty of choice, including a hot chip butty (roti with spiced potatoes), chickpea curry, and dahl. The food surpasses the vast majority of Indian high-street restaurants, and the service is quick and friendly. It’s located in the Corn Exchange, a good spot for dinner and a drink. Two more Mowgli’s are opening this year to complement two other restaurants in Liverpool, so watch this space.

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Chip butty, tea-steeped curry, dahl and Calcutta greens at Mowgli

 

For your caffeine fix, the endless stream of Starbucks, Costa, and Caffé Nero has got you covered. Independent coffee shops include Takk in the Northern Quarter, the Fig and Sparrow and Grindsmith (try its bigger Deansgate site).

There’s also the Cat Café. When I originally got wind of the first cat café opening in Edinburgh, I had my doubts. Was it right to keep the cats cooped up and make money from their appeal? But after visiting this one on Manchester, I’m fully reassured. The well-groomed cats have known each other since kittenhood, and as housecats, they seem to have no inclination for the outdoors. The café is roomy, with wooden platforms built into the walls for them to stroll around. Customers agree to not pick them up, or bother them if they’re sleeping. For £6, you get half an hour in the café with free drinks and the company of several haughty cats, who will mostly lounge above you, turning an indifferent eye to your admiring gaze. But you’ll enjoy it anyway.

I hope that this guide is useful to anybody looking for vegan options in central Manchester!

 

 

 

 

Review: Rebel Kitchen milk

On a sunny Saturday in Kensington, I was browsing for the first time the wares of Wholefoods. How unprepared I was for such a dazzling array of every product under the sun. Loose grains and beans for the taking; a coffee grinder; condiments I’ve never heard of; my favourite shampoo on offer.

Amongst all these magical displays, I came across a representative of Rebyl Kitchen offering tasters of milk. There are three versions: whole, semi-skimmed, and skimmed. It’s organic and coconut-based, also with brown rice, cashew, Himalayan salt, and nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast!

I’ve expressed my distaste for coconut many a time on this blog, so I asked the salesperson what to expect. She assured me that the skimmed yielded only a very mild coconut taste.

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I took a sip: it was delicious. Even the skimmed was creamy, neither watery nor thick. It’s got a luxurious, pure white colour, whiter than dairy. Safe to say I took a bottle home with me that afternoon.

In cereal and porridge, and by itself, Rebyl Kitchen milk is lovely. It’s fantastic to find a milk that a dairy drinker could actually prefer by its taste alone.

However, I’d been told that it wouldn’t split in my tea. Yet on two occasions (pre-boiling water, always a bad idea, and after waiting for it to cool down), the milk separated and left a sad mess in the cup.

And, at £2.99 a bottle, it’s not the most economical of alternatives. It’s also not calcium-fortified.

The verdict? Delicious. But it’s not perfect.

Still, I’m looking out for other Rebyl Kitchen products. They also offer a range of flavoured non-dairy milks, including banana, chocolate, and chai. These are sweetened with date sugar only, and contain no nasty additives. A definite brand to try!

Hackney Downs vegan market

At the dawn of this new year, the vegan movement continues to make waves. Worldwide, thousands are sailing through Veganuary. In the UK, vegan options continue to increase, including Tesco’s new range of ready meals, sandwiches, and pizza. In Australia, Dominoes have launched a range of vegan pizzas, including one topped with avocado.

I’m excited for the year ahead and the developments it will bring for veganism. I want to see the movement gain an even stronger foothold in mainstream media. The rise of vegan convenience and ‘junk’ food, especially, should help shed the image of veganism as a faddy diet.

Which brings me to the Hackney Downs vegan market, another relatively recent development. Organised by Fat Gay Vegan and EAT WORK ART, it’s now held every Saturday from 11am to 5pm. There are regular traders, with preference given to businesses run by women and members of the LGBT and BME community.

You’ve most likely heard of Temple of Seitan, Hackney’s finest vegan chicken store. It’s been a massive hit among vegans and omnivores alike. Although I’ve never been inside, I’ve passed the shop and carried on walking at the sight of the queue, snaking way out of the door.

This week, Temple of Seitan had a stall alongside the likes of Eat Chay (Vietnamese cuisine) and Young Vegans (vegan pies). My friend and I came over for the first time and marvelled at the offerings. A connoisseur of vegan cheeses and meats, my friend queued up twice for Temple’s mac n cheese. Judging by the silence as she ate, it was very good. I did sample a spear of pasta from each of hers – one slathered with barbecue sauce and studded with chick’n – but the smell of coconut-based cheese had gotten to me. I’ve a very strong nose for coconut, which I detest in vegan cheese, after a particularly bad experience making my own macaroni. But my friend, and many many others, love the Temple. By 3.30pm, the stall was sold out.

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Barbecue mac n cheese

I opted instead for a lentil curry from Rupert’s Street, who also offered sweet potato latkes and tofu wraps. I’m a big fan of lentils, and on this particularly cold day, it was exactly what I needed. Warm, satiating, and flavoursome, I’d highly recommend this curry if you’re popping by.

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Lentil curry with brown rice

We also stopped by Hell.Yum!, and took advantage of an irresistible three for £5 offer on cookies. I picked up salted chocolate, chocolate and walnut, and white chocolate and macadamia, telling myself that I’d share these at home. This I did not, finishing the bag contentedly by myself.

The final purchase for me was a cup of mulled cider from Clarkshaw’s Brewing. Very sweet and warming.

If you’re interested in top vegan cuisine, healthy or not, pop along to Hackney Downs vegan market. Details of each market are made available on Fat Gay Vegan’s website or on the Facebook page. Arrive promptly – after 1pm, it gets increasingly busy!

Photos courtesy of @_rhiannonnorman.

Vegan pizza @ Pizza Express

A while ago, I wrote about trying the vegan pizza offerings at Pizza Express and Zizzi. The Pianta at Pizza Express, which seems to have been taken off the menu, was a reasonable experience. On the other hand, Zizzi’s rich tomato sauce and its smattering of vegan cheese was a significantly tastier meal. But, having revisited Pizza Express, I wanted to report back on the progress made since.

One point that must be highlighted: the vegan pizza game in the UK keeps getting better. Pizza Hut are grabbing a slice of the action, offering vegan cheese on their bases. Dominoes offer VBites vegan cheese on their pizzas in Israel, with plans to bring this on to Australian menus next year; but in the UK, not even the bases are vegan. I’m hoping that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see this change.

So, how did a vegan and her almost-vegan friend fare at Pizza Express?

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Dough balls

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Veneziana with vegan mozzarella

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Vegan Giardiniera

We began with dough ball starters, perfect little balls of carby bliss. Although we missed out on the accompanying garlic butter, the garlic and chilli oils were a reasonable swap. Both plates were quickly demolished. The marinated olives, roasted tomatoes, and bruschetta (without pesto and butter) are also suitable for vegans.

My friend ordered a Veneziana pizza, subbing the mozzarella for the vegan alternative. Toppings included pine kernels, red onion, capers, and olives. I have to say, I was bemused by the sultanas. Isn’t pineapple a controversial issue? What about the outrageous sweetness of sultanas?

I ordered the vegan Giardiniera, awarded Best Vegan Pizza at PETA’s Vegan Food Awards 2017. It’s a step-up from the Pianta, loaded with red onion, olives, artichoke, and mushroom. Artichoke has a meaty texture which works well. And the cheese? Creamy. I’m really not keen on coconut-based cheeses, but their own version melts well and tastes good.

In terms of desserts, there is a Raspberry Sorbet and Coconut Delight available for vegans. Perfect for when you’ve inevitably not left enough space for afters.

So, overall, Pizza Express have done a great job. The possibility of swapping dairy cheese out on any vegetarian pizza is fantastic, and a real upgrade from the days when you could bring in your own vegan cheese to top your pizza. What’s more, signing up for offers with the company means you can snag a deal of £10.95 for a starter and main. Bargain.