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Vegan London: My Gastronomic Tour

The Tower of London Bridge epitomizes London, recently voted the “most vegan-friendly city in the world.” (all photos by Deborah Brooks)

London is a gastronomic tale of two cities within itself. The traditional and the revolutionary. Dickens, were he alive, might have a dark but humorous story to tell about the emergence of London as a premiere vegan restaurant capital amongst the meat-laden pubs, and fish and chips houses.

How did a town known for roast beef, blood sausage, bangers and mash, and fried cod get voted “most vegan-friendly city in the world” four years in a row by Happy Cow, an online vegan restaurant guide? From my research, it’s all in the attitude toward living an ethical lifestyle. While less than 2 percent of Brits are vegan, 36 percent consider the lifestyle admirable, according to a British survey, and are considering the transition to a plant-based diet. That translates into a market for vegan restaurants and plant-based options at omnivore establishments. At non-vegan restaurants, the desire to be inclusive is obvious in the signage on awnings (most include the word “vegan”) and on menus, which have options for both vegan and vegetarian items noted with icons.

Even afternoon tea has gone vegan!

So, when hubby and I decided to finally celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary (it was in June) in a big way, I said, “Let’s go to London!” For 6 glorious days, we enjoyed “the most vegan-friendly city in the world” in-between our whirlwind jaunts to see every sight London had to offer. All that walking made for hearty appetites.

As with every city you’ll visit during the summer crush, planning ahead is key to guaranteeing a meal at popular restaurants. Do your research from home and be sure to make reservations online well in advance of your trip. I made reservations for three restaurants that I knew I didn’t want to miss based on stellar reviews; Afternoon Tea at the Palm Court at the Langham; dinner at Gauthier, a Michelin-star vegan fine dining restaurant; and dinner at Unity Diner, a casual eats place, where the profits support a farm animal sanctuary.

I had more restaurants on my bucket list but decided not to overbook our week and allow for some spontaneity. It worked out fine. We were able to get into all of the restaurants last minute as we ate late most nights. Unlike the rest of Europe, London eats early. I also informed our hotel that I was vegan. We were on a breakfast plan and I wanted to have options. They were more than accommodating. As it turned out breakfast was so filling we only ate lunch one of the days and made our Afternoon Tea lunch and dinner on another. Otherwise, it was dinners only.

Here are highlights of our foodie tour of London with pictures. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Mallow. Our first night in London we hit it out of the park with Mallow in Borough Market. This location is one of two new restaurants from the Mildred’s team, a group of plant-based restaurants around London with a commitment to seasonable, sustainable food with minimal waste. We didn’t have an advance reservation but were able to get a late seating. Borough Market, located across the Thames from central London, is a trendy food area that’s hopping by day with crowded food stalls and by night with bustling cafes. The menu is a concise yet splendid list of all things that make plant-based eating a revelation. No outsourced meat replacements, everything is housemade.

The Shitake Mushroom Croquettes were melt-in-your-mouth pillows of umami love. A lifetime best bite! Pea and mint tortelloni were a unique take on an Italian specialty. Perfectly cooked pasta with a refreshing mint and lemon flavor profile. They were light and airy despite lying in a puddle of cream sauce. The Burnt Aubergine Borek was a “buttery” swirled pastry filled with savory eggplant on a bed of green tabbouleh (exquisite!) and baba ganoush. The Pulled Mushroom Biryani served as an ode to the influx of Indian restaurants in London and a delicious vegan version of what is usually meat-laden. The sides were a refreshing compliment to the intense bite of mushrooms. I’m happy to share that sister restaurant Mildred’s offers a vegan cookbook, which I will be ordering myself so that I can enjoy some of this fabulous food at home.

Tuesday. Our first breakfast at L’Oscar London, a stunning boutique hotel in the Holburn area included vegan sausages. Toast with sliced avocado and grilled tomatoes, a bowl of vegan yogurt with a side of fresh berries, and toast with Wilkins jams ended up being my favorite option as the week went on. The coffee was strong (Americano) and they offered a selection of plant-based milks, cold or steamed. The intimate restaurant was sumptuous and visually stunning. As breakfast was included in our stay, there was no need to take breakfast out.

We perused the Borough Market after a day of London touristy stuff including the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. The stalls were overflowing with food and tourists like us. Still full from breakfast we simply chose to look not eat.

Dinner was our reservation at Unity Diner, in Shoreditch, a neighborhood east of our hotel. This was a restaurant I was very much looking forward to, as it is co-owned by Ed Winters, better known by his online moniker, Earthling Ed, a compassionate and eloquent animal rights activist whom I follow. It also offered a vegan version of fish and chips along with other diner-type foods such as burgers, mac and cheese, hot dogs, and 3-D printed steak all in a casual setting. I ordered the “Tofish’ and Chips, as it is called on the menu. Made from tofu and nori sheets it’s a surprisingly good version of fish and chips both visually and taste-wise, especially dipped in the creamy tartar sauce. It was served with thick-cut chips (fries) and mushy peas, which taste similar to spit pea soup. A classic British meal vegan style! Hubby chose to try the 3-D printed Steak Burger, which was really a slab of “steak” on a bun. It was so realistic to meat, with stringy texture and gamy taste, it was odd. We both discovered our very changed taste buds for meat with that item. One and done. But I would definitely return for the Tofish and Chips and to try the “Lobster” Mac and Cheeze.

Wednesday was our busiest food day as we had lunch that day. A walk to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard and then on to neighborhoods west exploring side streets and their wondrous architecture brought us through Knightsbridge to Chelsea. We discovered a lovely pedestrian street that hubby likened to Larchmont Blvd. with its mix of eateries and small boutiques. We happened upon Wulf and Lamb, a vegan spot that was on my list so stopped for a bite on their patio. Glad we did! It was a favorite meal. We shared the delicious Big Wulf Burger and a fabulous salad with smoked slabs of tofu. I’m still dreaming about the Tamari dressing on that salad.

Dinner was a very late-night visit to Mildred’s in Soho, one of the sister restaurants of Mallow I previously mentioned. More casual in decor and menu, we opted for their sandwiches as was recommended by our waitress. The Memphis Hot Chik’n was quite mild by American standards but no less delicious, as the chicken replacement was quite good. The Pulled “Pork” was smothered in a zesty bar-b-q sauce and topped with a fabulous slaw. The chips were plentiful and crispy hot with that thick potato-ey filling. Gobbled them down.

Thursday was the big day! Afternoon Tea at The Palm Court at the Langham, London, as they offered a sumptuous vegan tea. This was the first reservation I made when planning our trip six weeks earlier and not an easy reservation to get. Our entire week was planned around this time slot, one of the few still available. And it did not disappoint as it lived up to its reputation and then some. Of course, it helped to mention that we were celebrating our anniversary.

We got a prime seat on the banquette sofa. While the room was sleek white and modern in decor everything screamed old-world luxury from the elegant service to the three-tiered silver servers. We were treated like royalty. As for the food, as yummy as the photos look, the taste was that much better. From the unique take on traditional tea sandwiches to the warm scones to the last bite of dark chocolate cake; it was a gastronomic feast of carbs and sugar at its best. With divine tea blends and a glass of Tattinger to wash it all down, we were sated and ready for a nap. Which we did before the theater that night. Dinner was a nightcap at a local pub that served ice-cold pints and bags of crisps (potato chips). It isn’t a visit to London without a visit to a Pub!

Friday night was Michelin Star night at Gauthier, another coveted reservation made from home. There aren’t many Michelin-star restaurants exclusively serving plant-based foods. I was not going to miss this.

Situated in a small row house in Soho, one rings the front bell to be let in. We were the first to arrive for the 7:45 seating, the later of two seatings offered, and secured a prime corner table in the small front room. There was a certain hushed reverence about the restaurant’s vibe, which made for a delightfully quiet evening away from the cacophony of London’s storied theater district. The later seating is a ten-course prix fix meal.

From the first plate of canapés to the “caviar” course to the pasta course, (hubby’s favorite) to the last bite of four desserts; we traveled a universe of tastes and flavors unknown. Small bites so intensely flavored and textured that I chose to close my eyes to fully savor each bite. While it’s not a meal I would eat often, it’s a meal that I’m thrilled I got to experience. The time and effort on the part of Chef Alexis Gauthier to “form a new French Gastronomy” utilizing sustainable foods with a low carbon footprint is apparent in every nuanced morsel offered. Please enjoy the pictures to fully enjoy our meal.

Saturday! Our last full day in London. The late morning and early afternoon were spent browsing the stalls at the Portobello Market in Notting Hill, where we enjoyed a divine vegan Oreo doughnut for lunch. This donut stand, tucked away at the end of the market, offered several vegan donut options, including a Barbie Pink version.

Vegan Donuts at Portobello Road Market

We decided to walk back to Holburn via the beautiful London parks and onto Old Bond Street so that I could peruse the Stella McCartney store. How could I not when in London? Little did we know that the 10 percent chance of rain would turn into a torrential thunderstorm. Not a bad place to be caught as the staff treated us to champagne as we awaited our chance to head back to our hotel.

Champagne at Stella McCartney

Dinner was another spur-of-the-moment reservation at Pastan Barbican, part of the restaurant Pastan, from Spain, serving all plant-based pastas and salads. While not as authentic as the pasta we enjoyed in Rome and Tuscany last summer, they were cooked al dente and sauced well. The standout was the Formentera with its spicy sundried tomato sauce topped with crisp plant-based chicken.

And… we were ready to go home. We filled our 6 days with everything wonderful London had to offer.

Thank you for sharing my food tale. I do hope you enjoyed every morsel.

Chocolate and Raspberry cake from Gauthier
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