Every time we have a planning meeting for this website* there’s one action point that comes up but is never carried out: we should review vegetarian meals at restaurants. We grow vegetables but don’t often enough eat vegetarian dishes cooked by cheffy experts. Not only do we think it’s worth seeking out those restaurants that do it best in order to share our experiences with our readers, but eating posh nosh helps us pick up ideas on how to cook our own home grown produce and even inspire us for what we should consider growing next (see below).
A few weeks ago we were invited to eat out at Bath’s Acorn restaurant, a fine-dining venue that regularly scoops up top awards and accolades for its modern vegan cuisine. Bath is our local city. A perfect opportunity to break our vegetarian-meal-reviewing duck.
The restaurant is tiny, tucked into one of the narrow, shadowy streets beneath Bath’s abbey, and it’s a grey, wet and wintery early April evening when we show up. This puts us bang in the middle of ‘the hungry gap’, a time when most of the autumn and winter veg harvests are over and the spring pickings have yet to fully begin. At this time, freshly grown produce lacks variety, and chefs who rely on locally sourced seasonal ingredients need to be at their most creative.
We went for the tasting menu. An appetiser followed by a starter, two main courses and two desserts, fairly priced at £48, and a great way to get an overview of what the restaurant is all about. Having nibbled our way through tiny dishes of foamy pea puree, donkey carrots** with parsley and almond, and a rich gnocchi with leek, mushrooms and dehydrated sauerkraut, we reached our second main course. It was a medley of morsels that looked like a stunning visual study in shades of brown, and it made us realise what this type of cooking is all about: extracting the simple flavours of the ingredients using innovative techniques and allowing the varying textures to take on as much importance as the taste.
For this plate we enjoyed the meaty, fleshy textures from a slab of wild mushroom; a pillowy cube of potato with a firm, crunchy top; the soft creamy layers of celeriac; a sharp bite of pickle; a thick sticky hazelnut sauce and the clean, crisp bite of burgundy-tinged chicory leaves. The centrepiece of the dish was a fluffy mushroom parfait with a shiny black coat, although it was the only element of the whole meal that we both failed to fully appreciate – “solidified mushroom soup” being the overly harsh verdict from someone who doesn’t much care for mushroom soup. Elsewhere, Rich was less keen on the gnocchi, wanting more from the sauerkraut (I disagreed and loved the combined creamy and crunchy unami flavours), while I found the pea puree slightly bland, which made me unjustly nervous about what to expect from the subsequent dishes.
If the textures contrasted, the colours were in harmony: browns, oranges and creams, as befitting a season dominated by below-the-ground root dwellers. The only green came from that pea appetiser and a mound of frozen parsley (yes, ice cold, frozen parsley) clambering over the carrot starter. Greens, the colour so often used to signify vegetarianism, dispensed with before we even made it to a main course.
It took us a while to grow into this veg only ethos – with small bites rather than a big single dish to pile into, Rich in particular felt he was eating sides without fish, but by the time we reached that main course medley he’d stopped grumbling about the lack of meat; and when we’d cleaned our plates of desserts we were both satisfyingly full. Those desserts were much more like what you might expect at any restaurant, albeit with a few twists: an apple confit with walnut and caraway, and a splendid sorbet subtly flavoured with parsnip (yes, parsnip) that sat alongside an indulgent chocolate ganache.
Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As with most tasting menus, it’s less about sitting down for a traditional meal, offering instead the opportunity to take your time exploring the creativity and attention to detail of the chef’s work. Acorn succeeded in not only providing us with excellent and innovative vegan food, but also managed to elevate those limited hungry gap ingredients to a whole new level.
Things we’ve learned
We set about using this as a learning experience for our vegetable growing and cooking, so here are our five top takeaway tips.
Green is not the only colour
We have an instinct that most vegetable dishes need some sort of greenery, even if it’s a few scattered herbs. This was a meal in which browns and creams starred and we didn’t miss the greens for a second.
Spice is not necessarily the variety of life
There was very little in the way of herbs or spices throughout the courses, giving space for the delicate flavours of the veg to shine (you really notice how fully flavoured a potato can be when expertly cooked in this context). Even when the potentially powerful parsley was used, its frozen state knocked that flavour right back to keep the focus on the accompanying carrot and almond.
The versatility of nuts
A lot of modern vegetarian cooking comes scattered with nuts and seeds, but they’re often given little more thought than to provide protein and add some visual appeal. Carefully chosen nuts can add much more to the flavour and texture, and have the ability to be used in more imaginative ways across sweet and savoury dishes.
The UK has never fully embraced chicory in the way some of our European neighbours have, but what a fine vegetable it is. It has been ages since we grew any ourselves and has now leapt to the top of our list of things to sow this year.
All hail the parsnip
We’ve regularly praised the parsnip for being more versatile in the kitchen than you might think (and for making a mighty fine wine too). But we’ve never had it as a sorbet before and it shone – delicately done it was fresh, sweet and even faintly aromatic.
Find out more at acornrestaurant.co.uk
*AKA a chat down the pub
**Big carrots. No donkeys. This is a vegan restaurant
Note: We were invited to eat at Acorn free of charge, but were under no obligation to give the experience any coverage. We only give coverage to things we like and have chosen to review our meal because we enjoyed it – irrespective of who footed the bill.