Grain Store Unleashed (at the Zetter Hotel)
Grain Store Unleashed is chef Bruno Loubet's vegan friendly pop up at the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell. There are three set menus in the evening (as well as full breakfast and a la carte lunch menus), one each for omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. Surprisingly not one of the menu items in the vegan set includes curry spice (see related complaint further on) and the preparations are interesting but not over the top and unnecessary. For instance dehydrated potato crackers because they work instead of ridiculous foams because they're trendy. The standard of service is high yet there is no snobbery, which is refreshing in a restaurant full of people who, in my head anyway, use words like "succulent" to describe their food and say things like "dahhhling" when they greet their best friend who they hate.
Meanwhile I'm literally licking my plate. You can't take me anywhere.
I'm often appalled by vegan options on up-scale menus, even (especially) at vegetarian restaurants. Look to the vegan selections and you will inevitably find yourself in average curry territory, whether a sad interpretation of something vaguely Thai or a dull stew laced with curry powder. That's boring, uninspired. Bruno Loubet got the memo that vegetables can be the stars of a plate without short cuts – like using animal protein, specifically – to obtain easy flavour.
Bread with guacamole. Unripe avocados and a disappointing start, but I'll let that go.
Vegetal oysters, potato wafer, broccoli dip. The faux oyster is made from a slightly gelatinous preparation of cucumber. If you're a regular reader you might know how much I hate cucumber, and also how meaningful it is to me when someone prepares it in a way that doesn't taste like the end of the world and puppy tears. I am never convinced by something that arrives with a flower on top because it looks like someone is trying to deceive hell by making it pretty, but this time it just worked. I don't know how, but I didn't convulse after I swallowed and I would have eaten a second serving had there been one. The potato crackers are like Marmite roast potatoes mashed and dried, served with a cold and smooth broccoli purée. That could never be wrong.
Pickled heritage radish, beetroot and samphire, cauliflower couscous. I'm not the world's greatest beetroot fan, but I enjoyed the lightly pickled preparation here because it isn't too earthy. The sauces are extraordinary, with combinations of salty and sweet to offset the pickle. The samphire is lost among the stronger tart flavours and I think the serving could could be halved and still be adequate. A little pickle goes a long way.
Wild mushroom tea. I'm having a hard time finding the right words to explain how this is one of the most memorable things I've eaten in months, but I can tell you why: umami. That word can sound empty these days since it's a popular description people don't always understand and use to describe something they simply like the taste of , but if you want to try a picture perfect example of umami then this is it. This thin soup is wildly peppery and savoury, rich and meaty. I could drink it by the gallon.
Artichoke stuffed with veggie chorizo & walnut, summer vegetables, rouille. I'm a big fan of lightly cooked lettuce and will even argue the merits of iceberg. It's simple and can add a buttery sweetness when done right. On this plate it is served alongside vegetables with quality olive oil. The sweet and smoky chorizo is an excellent choice to plate alongside, but it overpowers the delicate flavour of the artichoke (which would be better on the side with the vegetables). This is the nicest vegan chorizo I've ever had.
Drinks and dessert
Hey, I'm a grown up! I really don't know a lot about spirits other than I like a good cocktail, so I mostly make my selections based on attractive sounding words. The fig daisy is a drink that tastes like Christmas pudding in liquid form and the lavender margarita is pretty self explanatory (but just in case, it's a margarita with lavender).
We had two options for dessert: strawberries with grand marnier and coconut kaffir lime tapioca. Tapioca is a dessert that draws both cheers and death stares, so I'm impressed to see such a brave choice on the menu when they could quite easily serve up a popular staple like chocolate cake to a near 100% pleased audience. I'm firmly in the pro tapioca camp, but just in case you're on the fence there is good reason why this preparation might sway you to my side. This isn't the slime ridden milky pudding you might expect based on those forced school dinners you had to endure in the '60s. Tapioca pearls are cooked in a minimal quantity of coconut milk, so the texture is more stodgy than slimy, and it's broken up by cooked fruit and steamed sweet potato.
I found a few flaws with my meal, but then I always will because taste and all that, but as far as semi fine dining goes Grain Store Unlimited is highly recommended. The mushroom tea alone is worth the trip. The pop up closes on July 31, 2015, so get there quickly. Reservation information is available on their website and there is no need to alert them ahead of time that you are vegan.
Admittedly I have yet to try Grain Store at Kings X since the ongoing vegan option seems to be chilli and, dude, I'm American so I come from the land of good chilli. It seems uninteresting, not dissimilar from the cop out of curry as the vegan option, but the impression left from my meal at Grain Store Unleashed has my curiosity piqued enough to believe Loubet's chilli could be something special.