Review of Amico Bio, Italian Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant In London

So what do you do for the twenty-first anniversary of the day you and your partner got together?

Go for a hearty plant-based meal, that’s what.

Er… WITH your partner, in case that wasn’t clear!

We nearly didn’t go anywhere, what with it being a miserable, drizzly and cold London night, but the promise of good food (as always) motivated us to shake a leg, so off we went to try Amico Bio, a family-owned Italian vegetarian/vegan restaurant in London.

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A veggie Italian restaurant is a very rare thing. In fact I don’t know any other. Italian food, like French, often includes meat, cheese and cream, so is harder than other world cuisines to replicate in a veggie version – so we were really curious to see what it’d be like.

There are two branches of Amico Bio. I believe the ‘original’ is in Smithfields, and the ‘spinoff’ is the Bloomsbury side of Holborn. We went to the Holborn branch – just because it was closer.

I’m not a huge fan of Italian food. My favourite foods tend to come from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America and contain a multitude of spices, so Italian food to me by contrast is a little, well, dull.

I KNOW, I KNOW, Italian food can be incredible, and I particularly like the emphasis on fresh, luscious veg and fruit that you find in Mediterranean cuisine, it just wouldn’t be my first choice, is all. I think also, the prevalence of white wheat pasta and white bread puts me off a little.

My partner loves Italian food, but hasn’t had much of it of late (or since I encouraged him to try food from a little further afield!), so it was nice for him to be reacquainted with it.

The restaurant is in a very pleasant space, very cosy and ‘Italian rustic,’ but still elegant, with a huge print sketch of Leonardo Da Vinci (who was vegan, as we know from here) on a back wall. It’s authentically appointed with huge dark wood (what I took to be very old-timey Italian) dressers and a vast mirror, which contrast with the more modern prints on the walls and arty paper table mats that tell you about the restaurants philosophy:

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Sorry for the crappy interior photo – you really need to see the back of the restaurant to get the whole effect, but I was worried I was starting to look weird to the other diners.

Apparently all the veg for the restaurant is grown on the family farm in Italy, so it promised to be full-flavoured and divine.

The online menu of Amico Bio offered a whole grain option – a risotto made with brown rice, and I was disappointed it wasn’t on the menu the night we went. It DOES say online that menus change according to the produce available, but you’d think brown rice would be available all year? They also have a store in the restaurant that sells wholemeal spelt, and buckwheat flour, so you’d think they’d want to have some whole grain pastas available on the menu, but it doesn’t seem to have been considered.

I don’t get this. If you’re open-minded enough to drop the meat from your traditional cuisine, and you tout the health benefits of your food, why not also make dishes with whole grains, to really optimise the health and wellness benefits?

There seemed to be more dishes containing dairy cheese than I remembered from online too, but there were lots of vegan or ‘can be made vegan’ options.

We shared a bruschetta starter which was the most incredible tasting olive oil drizzled over fresh cherry tomatoes and basil. I’ve never had bruschetta before so I have nothing to compare it to – and it’s a shame the bread was white (why use heavily processed wheat in your bread when the emphasis is on whole, fresh foods??) but the tomato, oil and basil mix was gorgeous – to the point of me craving it again today. UK supermarket tomatoes just don’t compare to Italian tomatoes grown on a farm.

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For a main course I chose ‘Carciofi e culvofiori brasati con parsinache arrosto e cavolo rosso‘ – braised cauliflower and artichokes, roasted parsnips and braised red cabbage.

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The cabbage, artichoke and whatever the shaved, fried veg was (that you can see on top – but was not mentioned in the dish description) were delicious. The cauliflower just really tasted boiled, and the roast parsnip wasn’t as roasted as I’d have liked. All in all, not bad, but a dish really needs a grain or legume to plump it out and satiate. It really wasn’t that filling. I like to feel that I’ve eaten, when I’ve eaten.

Luckily, my partner had ordered ‘Frittelle di farro e insalatina, con fagioli all’occhio nero e cime de rapa,’ or spelt and salad fritters, black-eyed peas and turnip tops, and we ordered a side of roast potatoes with garlic and rosemary.

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Now to me, black-eyed peas and turnip greens are Southern US soul food (another cuisine I adore). I didn’t know they were particularly Italian. This isn’t a complaint, I’m always up for black-eyed peas, it was just strange seeing them in this context. The fritters were fantastic; light, not too greasy, and the spelt made the batter taste richer. My lovely partner let me have most of his peas and turnip greens. This, exactly this, is why we’ve lasted twenty-one years.

We shared the roasties which were bursting with earthy flavour and subtly complimented by the rosemary.

And then, AND THEN, came time for dessert.

I knew the restaurant had a selection of homemade gelato, and I’d seen online that they had pistachio flavour (MY FAVOURITE!!! Or one of them, I seem to have a lot of favourites!) I was almost too scared to ask if they had it this night, what with the menu being as fluid as it was.

But they had it! They also had several other delicious sounding flavours – the only one I can remember is elderflower, but they all sounded so delicious I nearly got thrown from my focus. I stuck to pistachio though, and was not sorry.

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The pistachio came through loud and clear, and the sweetness was at the perfect level: sweet enough so you know you’re eating dessert, but not the slightest bit sickly or cloying. I could have eaten a LOT of this!

My partner had a quintessential Italian liqueur, Amaro Alle Herbe, which just means herbal liqueur. It contained herbs like mint, sage, gentian, rosemary, centaury; and spices like cloves and cinnamon.

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I didn’t try this. I don’t drink alcohol. It smelled a little like a dental rinse, though I kind of got why it might be nice. If you like that sort of thing. My partner loved it, and said it was very warming.

 

Conclusion

I’m kind of blinded by the delicious pistachio gelato and my old favourite black-eyed peas, which make me want to say I’d definitely go there again – and I would, that’s not wrong.

And the prices are reasonable; and service, while in no way exceptional, was acceptable. And it also should be said that the restaurant is in a nice area and has a great look and atmosphere.

BUT, in my opinion, a bit more thought needs to be taken with menu items. While the veg are certainly flavourful and fresh, and the gluten-free crowd have plenty of options (too many really, when you consider that very few people actually need gluten-free food); there is not enough emphasis on WHOLE foods where the grains and pastas are concerned. This means that those wishing to avoid refined and processed grains do not have much choice. As I said, whole grains ARE offered on the online menu. I have no idea why they are not offered in the restaurant.

You should absolutely try this restaurant. Whether you live in London or visit here from elsewhere, it’s a great lunch/dinner venue, and just down the road from the British museum.

 

I Don’t Care How Trendy And Urban The New ‘Single Concept’ Restaurant Is – There Is No Sexy Meat

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I’m just gonna say it.

There IS no sexy meat…

…despite the nauseating attempts of new ‘single-dish’ restaurant businesses to make their ‘burger’ or ‘chicken’ seem exciting, cool and ‘urban.’

(I ain’t naming no names, but I know y’all know damn well the kind of places I’m talking about! The ones I particularly have in mind are in the UK, but this is a ‘thing’ that came here from the States, so US peeps – you know full well what I’m referrin’ to too!)

Using words like ‘honest,’ ‘gourmet,’ ‘real,’ ‘wholesome,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘bonafide,’ ‘farm fresh,’ natural,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘traditional,’ etc etc; this crop of new, mainly meat-based restaurants are desperate to seduce you with all these self-proclaimed qualities.

A ‘wholesome hipster’ type atmosphere is also seemingly enthusiastically encouraged, and consumers are made to feel ‘in the know,’ for patronising these places.

However, it is possibly an indicator of how big vegetarianism and veganism have become.

In the dying breaths of a meat-based culture, one that is slowly realising that meat consumption is killing the planet (and us!) it is perhaps predictable that there will be more energy than ever concentrated on attempting to give meat a sexy new resonance, to try and pull people back from the overwhelming trend in the US and western Europe of reducing meat intake.

I admit it, some of these restaurants look like great fun – the decor is usually casual and cosy. Many have a bit of a rustic-y, basic-y conceit going on which is quite enticing in its own way, I suppose. People look like they’re having fun inside. Wait staff are youthful and perky. A particular ‘single-dish’ chicken restaurant I am thinking of has buff male fitties in tight t-shirts turning the big spits the chickens are roasting on.

But if I give it even one minutes thought, the fact that certain positive words are being used to manipulate consumers into believing that the food (usually meat) they are eating is associated with the way these words make them feel, makes me heave.

What the hell about a burger or roast chicken is honest? Natural? Healthy? Gourmet? Wholesome?

Let’s examine this for just a moment.

It is made a big deal of that the burgers in these restaurants are made from grass-fed beef.

We know that grass-fed animals emit even more methane than factory farmed, thereby contributing to even more climate change, and that farming this way is just as unsustainable land-wise. If everybody in the world wanted to eat grass-fed cows – we would need another coupla’ planets!

The free-range chicken these places shout about using is not any better than factory farmed chicken. Customers think their chicken roamed free on a lovely grassy farm, but in fact the label free-range is just a marketing term designed to make you THINK this is the case. We know it is not.

‘Traditional’ is another word commonly used, regarding the preparation and style of the food. I find this calculating and manipulative. When we hear this word (as any good advertiser knows) it subconsciously goes beyond the description of the food, and tends to engender a positive, warm feeling in us, and conjure up images of family and celebrations. It makes us feel we are doing something intrinsically ‘right’ and ‘good.’ Er, let’s remember that ‘traditional’ isn’t always good. FGM is traditional. Slavery was traditional.

And on the health aspect? Meat, NO MATTER ITS PROVENANCE, contains saturated fat, cholesterol and hormones. SO even though you are being given the impression that the meat in these restaurants is a healthier version than a fast-food joint might sell you – it’s not, not really.

I even prefer the idea of fast-food joints to these new honest/gourmet/real heart attack emporia. At least they’re not pretending to be something other than what they are.

The only difference really is that Real Natural Honest Meat Place has pretty, rustic distressed wood tables and benches, and the staff wear cooler T-shirts and have more upmarket accents. That’s all.

Yet I’m sure the people who frequent these places are under the impression they are eating in an establishment that cares about the environment and their health.

*Sigh*

All I can say is, don’t let a marketer decide what is healthy, honest or cool for you. And if you are vegan, don’t be downhearted about this phenomena, I’m not. It’s annoying, but I truly believe it’s part of a last-ditch attempt to entice us into buying meat before vegetarianism and veganism take an even stronger hold.

 

NYC – Where Vegans Are People Too, Part 2 (Or, Where To Eat In New York).

So last week, I gushed about how New York caters to all the vegans, not just the studenty, beatniky ones. I totally adore students and beatniks, but more diversity was needed, and New York delivered.

I also shared some food pics from the beginning of our wee break there.

If you missed that post? Click here.

This is SOME of what we ate for the rest of the vacation.

Lula’s Sweet Apothecary

Cashew based ice-cream – check out the coconut whipped cream and hot fudge sauce on top!

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And with chocolate sauce on top –

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V-Note (part of the Blossom group)

South of the border salad:

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Mushroom scallops, tofu salmon, broccollini and forbidden rice in a white wine and mushroom reduction:

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Hearty, but non-greasy, sweet potato fries:

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Blossom in Chelsea

Blossom greens and cream of celeriac soup:

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Part of my intention with these pics was to help quell the common misconception that vegans only eat salad. It was so hot while we were here however, that I ended up wanting to eat salad pretty often!

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Aaaaannnnd, mah reKOmenDAYshiuns…

My overall recommendations for vegan dining in NYC are as follows. Though I’ve been four times, there are tonnes of plant-based restaurants I haven’t yet visited, so this is based on my current experience:

Absolute Must Do’s. Go There Yesterday

Franchia – if you love Korean and Japanese food, but want the healthy versions, try this beautiful mid-town restaurant. I love it for the imaginative maki rolls (try the spicy ‘tuna’, the guacamole, or the shiitake ones in particular), the teas, and the space. Don’t forget to look up at the gorgeous ceiling.

Erin Mckenna’s Bakery – If, like me, you are a health conscious, whole food vegan, then you want something healthier than veganised regular cakes. You want goodies that, ideally, are made without refined flour or sugars. So what do you do? You visit Erin Mckenna’s Bakery. They use a gluten-free fava/broad bean mix flour, and use agave as much as possible to sweeten. The excellent thing is, none of the taste is compromised. The cupcakes are deliciously moist and rich. I’ve occasionally had a slightly stale cupcake here, but I’m prepared to accept that it could have been a bad day/member of staff, and even though they’ve down-graded some of their ingredients recently (possibly to increase profit margins, but I have no evidence this is the reason)  I’ll always, ALWAYS go back there when I’m in New York. They were the first and are still the best. Try the vanilla and red velvet cupcakes. And the doughnuts. And the banana bread. And the cookie sandwiches. Ok try everything.

Peacefood Cafe – There are now two branches of this vegan restaurant, one on the Upper West Side, and one downtown, which I just visited for the first time. Though I’d heard about Peacefood a while ago, I avoided visiting it the last couple of times I was in NY because I thought the name sounded corny and overbearingly hippie and mother-earthy. Shows what a silly I was. Never judge a restaurant by its name. At the very least, judge it by its online menu. When I finally got around to looking at theirs, the chickpea fries called my name from the screen, and that was my initial reason for going. I can report that they were excellent, along with the drinks (brazil nut chai highly recommended ) and the desserts – the key lime pie was insane. We actually took this to-go, and ate it a couple of hours later in the Plaza Hotel food hall. I feared it would have turned to mush in the afternoon heat, but it was still pretty sturdy. I loved the decor too, very elegant, yet friendly and inviting. We went back to Peacefood a couple of days later, and will definitely return on our next New York trip.

Re: The Plaza Hotel food hall;  not much doing for vegans I’m afraid, apart from a froyo kind of place that always has one (rotating) non-dairy flavour – but I guess if you don’t like that one flavour, you’re screwed.

Lula’s Sweet Apothecary – This was our first visit to Lula’s. We tried to go last year but it was all closed down. This was doubly disappointing, as we’d just tried to go to Stogo, another amazing ice-cream place (one we’d previously tried) that had also just shut down. Before we left, I read that the shop had kind of opened again, that it was opened on some days, and it might not be called Lula’s Sweet Apothecary any more. Yes. I was confused too. We went on a Saturday night, we figured it HAD to be open on a Saturday night, and it was. It’s kind of at the address advertised for LSA, but maybe one or two doors along (if you go to the given address, you’ll come across it) and I think it’s open Thurs, Fri, Sat and Sun, until late.

We happily slurped and munched on cashew-based strawberry and vanilla ice creams (they have lots of sexier flavours, we were just being boring), with hot fudge and marshmallow sauce, and coconut-based whipped cream. This was while sitting outside the shop in the dimming East Village light, listening to the strains of something very Woody Guthrie-esque (Ramblin’ Jack Elliot?) coming from the cosy interior. Go.There.Now.

As for the Blossom chain, for location I recommend Blossom on Carmine (on a pretty street in the West Village), but for food it has to be V-Note. V-note is not in a great location but absolutely worth making a trek to for the food.

Hangawi – sister restaurant to Franchia, it is also midtown, but a little more expensive and fancy. You take your shoes off at the entrance, and sit at traditional Korean tables. The kimchi stews are amazing.

Bliss Cafe – Let’s not forget Brooklyn. Vegan or vegan curious in Brooklyn? Go here. I had a great bowl of chilli with Daiya cheese on top and some gorgeous house blend iced chai.

 

If you’re hungry and passing by…

Gobo – We’ve been to their West Village location twice now (they have another on the Upper East Side), but if I’m honest it was more because I like the space than the food. This restaurant doesn’t seem to know what it is, and some of the items just seem a bit, well, weird. It always seems buzzy, and other people’s food looked and smelled good, so I’m happy to believe I just haven’t yet chosen the right thing from the menu.

Angelica Kitchen – I loved this old East Village vegetarian mainstay when we discovered it in 2002, but revisiting in 2011 and 2013, it just really wasn’t great. The cornbread is fabulous, and I’ve never tried the desserts, some of which sounded great, but I would probably only revisit if I was in the ‘hood and starving.

Next time, I’ll be excited to visit…

So, so many, but the places that come to mind are Souen, Village Natural, Beyond Sushi, and Pure Food And Wine

 

How To Eat Well In Restaurants As A Vegan

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So you have a get-together with friends planned, and you are partly responsible for choosing the restaurant you’ll all eat at ?

If you’re a new vegan, you may think your choices are limited, or that you’ll have to leave it to someone else to choose the venue, and just put up with a plate of lettuce when you get wherever you’re going.

Not so.

Yet,  it was so. And really not so very long ago.

I remember a meal, around 12 years ago, in a smart(ish) restaurant in Clapham, London, where, despite the fact that the staff  thought they were cultured, cosmopolitan and sophisticated, all they could offer me was a bowl of lettuce. Um… yeah. Grim.

Thankfully, those days are gone.

Unless you live in a tiny village (though even if you do, I’m guessing there’ll be a Chinese or Indian restaurant at the very least, not too far away) your biggest problem is which restaurant to choose from the many options available to you.

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where there is a good vegan restaurant, don’t be afraid to suggest this to your friends. You’d be surprised how many people (while maybe not ready to go fully vegan) are open to trying plant-based food. Even if there is one stick in the mud friend who says they would miss their meat (though does anyone actually say this?)  hopefully they will be swayed by the opinions of the majority.

If you suggest a vegan restaurant and it gets the green light from everyone, make sure it is a tried and tested, good place. You’ll want everyone to get the best impression possible of your diet. And once there, don’t hesitate to make recomendations – even great restaurants have some dishes that aren’t as good as others, so advise where possible.

Being vegan is your opportunity to get to know many delicious cuisines from around the world, several of which don’t habitually use dairy anyway, (so no awkward questioning of waiters, checking that there’s no milk, butter, cream etc in a dish – phew!).

In my coaching programmes, I give an extensive guide to restaurant dining options, with vegan meal choices available in each specific cuisine.  But here are 6 solid choices that should serve you well:

 

1. Good old Indian.

Lots of Indian restaurants are vegetarian, so half the battle is won already. There are many different Indian cuisines, but you should be able to find some of the following dishes at most of them:

Starters: Poppadoms with chutney (avoid the yoghurt-y dips),  onion bhajis, spinach pakodas, uttapam, sev puri, veg samosas.

Mains: Vegatable malabar, bhindi bhaji/curry, chana masala, tharka dahl aloo gobi, brinjal bhaji, sambar (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the dishes are, there should be a description of each dish on the menu, and you can read up online and even decide what you’ll have beforehand, if you really want to make it easy). At the very least, there should be a vegetable curry on offer.

2. Chinese.

This is probably the least interesting of all the cuisines I’m mentioning here, in terms of vegans being well catered for, but I appreciate that this might be the only option for some people in out of town areas.

Starters: At the bare minimum, vegetable spring rolls and fried seaweed should be served here. If you’re in a Chinatown somewhere, you may get some chili fried tofu,

Mains: The go-to choice if there’s nothing else is tofu and stir-fried mixed veg with steamed rice. In a city restaurant you may get a choice of specific veg dishes, like green beans or bok choy in garlic sauce for example.

3. Lebanese (Syrian, Iraqui, Israeli and Egyptian are similar in their dish offerings).

It is usually a good idea to get several hot and cold starters  – these are normally more interesting than the mains, and you can share and let everyone have a taste. Choose from houmous, baba ghanoush, moutabal, hot or cold ful madamas, makdus, falafal, stuffed vine leaves, tabboulleh, moussaka. If you do need a main, spinach or okra bamia is the way to go (maybe marked as vegetarian bamia).

4. Korean.

Starters: Soup (there is often miso soup available, or various veg in clear, soup with tofu), kimchi, pickles (there are several different sorts of kimchi and pickles to try – all delicious), salad (often involving seaweed and tasty dressings – check these are vegan, lots are).

Mains:There should be a veg option in the bibimbap (menu may call this ‘pot dish’) section, and in the noodle section of the menu. Try soba noodles. These are made from buckwheat – a whole grain. You should also find some variation on the following dishes: grilled aubergine in miso paste, stir-fried tofu and mixed veg in soybean paste stew, cold soba noodles in spicy chilli sauce.

Desserts: Try cinnamon punch (non-alcaholic) if they have it, and don’t forget to sup on the traditional Korean barley tea throughout.

5. Ethiopian.

I am not even going to try and be clever and name the veg stews available in Ethiopian restaurants. They have several, all clearly marked. You choose one to eat with your yummy ‘injera’ (Ethiopian bread resembling a pancake, but made of teff, a fabulous wholegrain). You don’t need to check if the stews are dairy-free, they are. Dairy is not used in Ethiopian cooking at all. Most times there will be an offer on the menu where you get a selection of the veg stews at a fixed price. Marvellous. What could be easier. Once you’ve tried Ethiopian food, you’ll be hooked. Point your peepers at this plate of heaven!

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6. Vietnamese

If you think this is just a variation of Chinese food, think again.

Starters: Vietnamese spring rolls in peanut sauce (some restaurants call these summer rolls), salads.

Mains: Fried aubergine on garlic sauce, fried tofu in garlic sauce, fried mange-tout/bok choy with garlic sauce. Steamed rice or udon noodles as a base.

Desserts: Truth be told, the whole reason I included Vietnamese food here is cuz of this scrummy dessert called Che Thai. It’s a long drink made of coconut milk, with bits of fruit (usually jackfruit, lychee or longan) and chewy jelly chopped up and thrown in. It’s pretty sweet, which I’m guessing is due to a high sugar content – but you’re not gonna have one every day, right?

Final note:

Never be shy about checking for egg or dairy if you’re not sure, just smile and be lovely while you’re asking. Where possible (and only if in small groups!) let everyone try your dish – show them animal products are not the be all and end all of a dish. And, oh yeah… bon appetit!

I love hearing about great restaurant vegan food experiences. Please share yours with me in the comments.