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Flexitarian restaurants in London: Where to eat if you're joining the movement

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 12/12/2018 Harriet Brewis
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If we don’t change how we eat, we'll push food production beyond planetary boundaries by 2050.

That's according to Nature – one of the world's most cited scientific journals – who in October released a report saying the rise of fatty, sugary and meat-heavy diets risks destabilising the Earth's entire ecosystem.

There is still hope. The report also says that diners don't have to take drastic measures to make a difference – if you can’t face a life of vegetarian or veganism, you can still help the environment by following an adaptable, vegetable-focused diet. If everyone did, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be reduced by more than half, which would avoid pushing the ecosphere towards the brink of collapse.

So what exactly is flexitarianism? And what are London's restaurants doing to offer plants a greater share of the limelight?

What is flexitarianism?

Flexitarians, sometimes unflatteringly referred to as 'casual' or 'cheating' vegetarians, follow a predominantly plant-based diet with the occasional addition of meat and fish.

There are no set rules – some flexitarians have one meat-free day a week, while others only eat it occasionally – but any animal products consumed must be ethically sourced and environmentally friendly. The idea is to opt for quality over quantity.

Specialised menus

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Flower power: Lyle's vegetarian set menu offers a feast for the eyes (Per-Anders Jorgensen)

Some national cuisines naturally lend themselves well to plant-focused, meat-friendly diets – see below – while others take a more deliberate approach.

Exmouth Market’s Morito separates its menu into categories to illustrate equal commitment to the different food groups. The tapas bar organises small plates under three headings – meat, fish and vegetables.

Vegetable options outnumber the meat, and non-veg dishes tend to come with plant-based embellishment – think cod with roast cauliflower and green tahini, or chorizo and chestnut​ Brussels sprouts. The menu changes daily but certain stalwarts are too popular to budge, like the crispy aubergine with whipped feta and date molasses, and the punchy padrón peppers.

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Moreish: Morito's sharing plates are perfect for big groups or big appetites

Other restaurants don't simply divide their food into sections, they separate whole menus.

Shoreditch favourite Lyle's offers two set dinner menus – £59 for the omnivorous option or £49 for the vegetarian if you’re having a meat-free day.

Again, both change daily, but they always offer a range of seasonal flavours – from sea bass, turnips and mandarin for the omnivores, to kabocha pumpkin, bergamot and barley for the herbivores, with the option of a Neal's Yard cheese course for all.

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Buzzing: the bar at Pollen Street Social

Mayfair's Pollen Street Social takes the menu concept one step further. The Michelin-starred restaurant has created omnivore, vegetarian and vegan menus, each of which has its own à la carte options and tasting menu.

Those who opt for the general tasting menu can feast on the likes of Lake District lamb loin, while the vegetarians dine on onion squash and parmesan soup, and the vegans enjoy white asparagus with cep purée.

Each menu also lists the exact source of the British-grown produce featured, and how far each item has travelled – to the mile – to reach guests’ plates.

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Crowd-pleaser: Farm Girl's coconut bacon BLT

Farm Girl takes a more relaxed approach. Each of its Notting Hill, Soho and Chelsea locations serves an antipodean-inspired menu boasting “something to suit everyone”. Dishes include vegan alternatives to common staples – coconut 'bacon' BLTs and BBQ pulled jackfruit tacos – as well as classic chicken sandwiches or a smoky lamb burgers.

International flexi-food

Indian

Indian food is famous for its vegetable-based cooking, particularly in South India and coastal states like Kerala. Award winning restaurateur Das Sreedharan has harnessed this tradition with his two Rasa Restaurants.

The original, Rasa N16 in Stoke Newington, serves a totally vegetarian menu while the more upscale Rasa W1 in Mayfair has become something of an inverse flexitarian restaurant. Having begun its life like its east London counterpart as wholly vegetarian, it has since expanded to include meat dishes in a nod to traditional north Keralan cooking. These include a thalassery chicken masala, baked pastry lamb puffs and coconut crab thoran.

Over in Stoke Newington, diners at Rasa N16 can enjoy a wealth of meat-free options, from black lentil cakes with coconut chutney, to rich curries, paper-thin dosas and creamy payasam – a Keralan sweet treat.

Middle Eastern

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Purple reign: NOPI's roasted aubergine with almond yoghurt (John Carey)

Middle Eastern cuisine is also effortlessly flexi-friendly, with its glut of silky dips and innovative approaches to the humble aubergine.

Yottam Ottolenghi’s string of celebrated eateries – from his eponymous delis in Islington, Belgravia, Notting Hill and Spitalfields to his much-loved NOPI in Soho to his newest spot, ROVI, in Fitzrovia – all award equal attention to vegetable, grilled meats and seafood sharing plates.

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Pick 'n mix: Ottolenghi Spitalfield's boasts a hearty display of salads (Issy Croker)

Ottolenghi restaurants are immediately identifiable by the stacks of glossy meringues and tecnicoloured salad bowls that line their counters. However, the hot dishes they serve are no less abundant, ranging from grilled quail with pomegranate molasses to roasted butternut squash with sake yoghurt. If you're going in, have a listen to Loyle Carner's track named for the chef first.

NOPI's menu changes seasonally but retains some of the signature dishes lovingly conceived by chef Ramael Scully. These include courgette and manouri fritters, coriander seed-crusted burrata, and Valdeón cheesecake with pickled beetroot, almonds and thyme honey.

Branching out slightly from its older siblings, ROVI is more focused on fermentation and fire – with food cooked on open flames and a cocktail menu grounded in house shrubs. Guests can sample celeriac shawarma and grass-fed onglet skewers, while sipping on rosemary and grapefruit sours with chartreuse and aquafaba.

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Sweet spot: save room for dessert at Fitzrovia's Honey & Co. (Patricia Niven)

Down the road on Warren Street, you'll find a more homely take on middle eastern cooking.

Set up and run by a married couple of Israel-born chefs, Honey & Co. has space for no more than 20 diners and serves the sorts of things its founders like to eat – red falafel with red pepper and parsley, slow-cooked chicken with chestnuts and raisins, and lentil stew with burnt aubergine and tahini.

East African

Eritrean and Ethiopian food is becoming something of a London trend in itself, as more and more parts of the city embrace sour, bubbly injera bread with its artist’s palate of rich toppings. Injera is a large round fermented flatbread with a sourdough taste and a spongy texture. This makes it the perfect vessel for soaking up the stews, vegetables and meats with which it's served.

East African cuisine is typically plant-based, with additional emphasis on spicy lamb and beef dishes. For a shining example of this, head to Zeret Kitchen, a family-run restaurant in Camberwell.

Tucked into the corner of a Walworth Road housing estate, the restaurant's matriarch Tafe Belayneh and her team dish up traditional, plant-based food done right, with the option of meat if you feel like it. You won't find any pork, however – the Ethiopian Orthodox Church doesn't allow it.

Who's doing it best?

While a growing number of restaurants are getting on board with flexitarianism in some way, a special few are championing all aspects of the trend.

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Home comforts: all dishes on Native's menu are sourced from the UK

Native, which moved this year from its original Neal’s Yard site to London Bridge, has taken the foundations of flexitarianismsustainability, ethicality, waste reduction – and built a restaurant on them. The ingredients on its menu are not just local and seasonal but specifically native to the UK.

Founded by former River Cottage chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Northamptonshire falconer Imogen Davis, the restaurant focuses on foraged foods, game and zero-waste snacks.

Each section of its menu offers a plant-based option as well as a meat or fish dish, so there's something to suit all tastes and dietary needs. Highlights include treacle cured brill, with buttermilk and bramble vinegar, and hogseed vadouvan carrots with tempura-battered tops.

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Clean living: Native has ethical, sustainable and zero-waste dining at its core (Horst Friedrichs)

Through the Woods, is a North London neighbourhood haunt which epitomises flexitarianism in an unassuming way.

This former supper club, now with a permanent Crouch End site, serves a tasting menu rooted in vegetables picked from the chef’s own garden.

Of the seven dishes on the £40 menu, only one features meat or fish. The food is about celebrating locally-sourced vegetables and oft-overlooked herbs – like lovage and currant leaf – while paying special attention to the solitary cut of meat as a luxury, not a necessity.

The restaurant’s co-founder Chris Slaughter adopts an ‘everything in moderation’ philosophy, believing that we should appreciate and savour what nature gives without indulging in damaging excess.

Speaking exclusively to the Standard, Slaughter explained: “Through the Woods is back to basics for me, using the best of what’s on our doorstep, cutting down on food waste, promoting meat reduction and, just as important, creating a fun and friendly place to have supper.”

The future

There’s no fix-all solution to the threat of climate change. It’ll take more than eating chicken only once a week to stop environmental damage.

We also need to halve food waste and adopt better farming practices if we want to avoid exhausting the world's food system, according to Nature.

Nevertheless, altering diets is a key pillar for achieving a sustainable future and people are clearly taking note: an estimated 22 million already identify as flexitarians in the UK, and the figure is set to keep rising – here's to 2051.

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