Talking vegan eating in the context of fine dining would be almost unthinkable even a mere five years ago. Yet in the last two years, what’s now usually referred to as plant-based dining has rapidly gained momentum in London’s gastro landscape.
There has been a collective rally of conscience about the need to eat “mostly plants” as food activist and writer Michael Pollan advocates. Whether embraced full-time (and the growth in committed veganism among millennials is dramatic), or, as a growing movement among the more curious, eco-conscientious food-minded, plant-forward eating is going mainstream in London.
Here’s our insider guide to the best vegan restaurants in London.
Vegan Tasting Menus to Try
Classically trained French chef Alexis Gauthier has become vegan himself and has a permanent eight-course vegan tasting menu at Gauthier Soho. Aside from his personal conversion, this reflects the demands of his high profile diners such as Stella McCartney, Tom Cruise, and Al Gore. “It makes me more creative,” he enthuses. “I look at a tomato, for example, from the inside, thinking about its’ DNA and what gives it flavour. I am forced to think more”. As a challenge, he even created a 'vegan faux gras' with braised lentils, walnuts and shallots, which is “even more delicious with the same richness and deliciousness, yet cruelty-free.”
His current menu presents stuffed courgette flower with smoked almond and wild rice; summer vegetable tart with chamomile cucumber, roast red pepper curd, lemon confit and basil; fennel kimchi with broad beans, edamame, pea shoots and lemon confit; and peach vacherin.
A growing number of chefs are offering exceptionally creative plant-focussed menus as alternatives to their mainstream repertoire – including Helena Puolakka at Aster, Chantelle Nicholson at Tredwells, James Lowe at Lyle’s, and Theo Randall at Intercontinental Park Lane. It’s now de rigeur to offer vegan choices even on the most gastronomic and meatcentric menus. London is at the forefront of this food revolution, with new vegan offerings proliferating weekly.
”I personally feel that creating a delicious menu from vegetables is harder and takes much more thought to extricate maximum flavour,” says Theo Randall. He explains: “We have a vegan risotto on the menu, which is made with courgettes and tomatoes. To get the creamy texture of the risotto we cook the courgettes with olive oil and basil for a long time so they become almost caramelised, enhancing their flavour. We mix this with a courgette purée that is really green and fresh. Then add roasted datterini tomatoes, fresh basil and a tomato passata. Finished with more basil, sea salt and ground black pepper. The result is fantastic!”
Chefs truly need to take a leaf out of Chantelle Nicholson’s ground-breaking first book Planted, written with professional chefs to the fore. She takes vegan cooking to a whole different level of enticing mould-breaking ideas and techniques. Enthuses Nicholson: “I realised we need to be more conscious of how to use more plant-based food and trying new textures and seasonings is a great way to explore fresh approaches.”
Her recipes, which appear regularly on her menus, include pea and broad bean gnudi with lemon and fennel, crisp globe artichokes, spelt and tarragon stuffing, salsa verde, grilled baby gem, sweetcorn pudding, grilled onions and kimchi, whole barbecued spiced cauliflower using the normally discarded leaves in the summer slaw with tzaziki; and gin and elderflower cheesecakes with almond crumb. The first series of vegan supper clubs at Tredwell’s were so popular, they are now a regular fixture.
“Like many Nordic chefs, I’ve long used cultivated and foraged vegetables,” explains Helen Puolakka of Aster, who delights in cooking a regular vegan Sunday brunch – think teff pancakes, and heritage tomatoes with sherry dressing – and ensures there are plant-led dishes on menu at all times. “I think this will soon be the new norm,” she asserts.
Whilst turning over dining rooms to vegan-only dining is unlikely to be on the cards among establised high end restaurants, enticing and creative dishes that are as special a gastronomic experience are increasing expected and offered. James Lowe of the much vaunted Lyle’s (a new entry on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 38 this year) is deeply committed to ensuring his vegan diners have an equally satisfying meal. “It’s important to consider all the ingredients and the balance. I usually offer three dishes of equal size on a vegan menu rather than building up to the main. These might include peas, lovage, sorrel, riseley; fresh borlotti, summer greens and green almonds, a nut ice with seasonal fruit.” Fermenting and pickling vegetables brings a different kind of umami to their flavours, which he believes is crucial to a satisfying meal.
Perhaps more surprising is that elegant art deco seafood restaurant Kaspar’s at The Savoy has a quirky and enticing vegan menu embracing vegan sushi, laksa and unusual combinations such as shitake mushroom and pinenut puree besides a notable vegan wine menu. Glamorous, vegetarian restaurants such as Fitzrovia’s Vanilla Black and 30-year established, globetrotting The Gate offer good vegan menus.
100% Veg Restaurants
New plant-led restaurants and cafes are proliferating in the capital and the minimalist 100% plant-based Essence restaurant in Shoreditch led by LA celebrity chef Matthew Kenney, described by Forbes magazine as "having a certain glow about him," leads the pack. Heirloom tomato lasagne, a reinterpretation of a classic, made with courgette in place of pasta, sundried tomato sauce, pistachio pesto and creamy, macadamia ‘ricotta’ is outstanding. The brownies made with raw cocao and the chewy, toffee-like Medjool date ‘caramel’ are revelations.
Camilla Al Fayad’s (daughter of Harrod’s owner) Farmacy in West London has a cult following for her bowl-based menus and especially the beetroot dal and 'activated' shots. Close by, Redemption is not only vegan but alcohol-free too and has just crowd-funded to open a further site beyond Notting Hill.
Among the hyper environmentally aware younger diner, interest in veganism as an informed lifestyle choice or even only as an occasional socially credible option is strongest. According to PETA, 76% of 18-34 year olds are keen to try vegan menus and UK-wide, it is estimated that approximately 7% of the UK’s population are vegan, with many London-based.
Among the more sophisticated casual vegan restaurants is Scandi-styled Wulf & Lamb in the smart foodie enclave of Chelsea’s Pavilion Road. whose mission is “fiercely kind, veg with edge.” The standout dish is vegan mac'n'cheese made with cashew cream, turmeric and mustard, while desserts also impress, both mango and passionfruit cheesecake with a macadamia, pistachio and sesame base, and tiramisu made with raw almond cream.
Leading the seemingly insatiable appetite for “junk vegan”, is the fiesty, first fully vegan gastro-pub the Spread Eagle created by former advertising guru Meriel Armitage. Her street food Club Mexicana has been pivotal in spearheading the vibrant “junk” vegan scene. Club Mexicana’s luscious jackfruit and coconut oil “cheese” tacos and nori wrapped “tofish” burritos are on the Spread Eagle menu alongside vegan wines, beers and sour cocktails using aquafaba (chickpea water) instead of egg white to create the froth.
Let the vegetables do the talking.