Review: Zizzi (UK pizza and pasta chain)

This is actually the Strand branch, I forgot to take a photo at Victoria, doh!

I was looking for a decent place to meet a friend on a Saturday – a lovely friend who, though not vegan, is totally on board with eating at vegan restaurants with me.

She told me to choose the venue.

My criteria were location (I couldn’t be bothered travelling that far on a Saturday, and it needed to be easy for us both to get to), and price. I remembered it was my turn to treat us to a meal and I wanted amazing food at a good price.

I remembered a friend had emailed me a £10 Zizzi voucher, and I’d heard that Zizzi now have a separate vegan menu.

They also had a branch in London’s Victoria, which was a perfect location for us.

Done, done and DONE!

I was quite optimistic about what the experience would be like. I’d visited Zizzi about 10 years previously and had a super-yummy pizza with tomato sauce and a few veggies on top (no cheese) that they’d had no problem sorting out for me.

Once at the restaurant I asked for the vegan menu which was brought to me immediately – it definitely seemed like they were used to people asking for it. I say that because I’ve been in other restaurants where you ask to see the vegan menu and they look at you like ‘oh jeez, I have to remember where I put that thing?’

The vegan menu was of course much more diminutive in size than the carnist one – but there was a small selection of dishes that, if each dish was good, would constitute a fair selection.

There was a margherita pizza where you can add your own topping; a couple of great-looking pasta dishes; salads; bruschetta; and several nibbles and sides that were exactly the same as on the carnist menu.

OMG that torte!

The main dessert option – sticky chocolate praline torte with coconut and chocolate swirl gelato called my name loud and clear, and I kinda couldn’t wait to get to it!

It’s not many places that do vegan pizza with ACTUAL vegan cheese in the UK as of yet, so I wasn’t gonna hesitate in ordering pizza.

Normally a basic margherita wouldn’t hold enough interest for me (I like a TON of shit on my shit!), but you could add three toppings for the same price, so I plumped for artichokes, field mushrooms and red chillies.

I also chose the gluten-free crust (made of rice-flour) as I try and avoid white wheat flour. If you want to know why, read this post.

While waiting for the pizza I ordered some green tea, and was thrilled to find out they serve Teapigs super quality fancy muslin teabag tea! Not being a millionaire, I can’t afford to buy boxes of Teapigs tea in the supermarket, so it’s great that I can sample it at places like this.

Fancy tea

It was served in a glass (I LOVE tea served in a glass!), on a very artsy saucer, with a block of honeycomb (not ACTUAL honeycomb, but the stuff that we Brits call ‘honeycomb’ but which is actually caramelised sugar).

Everything boded well for the food…

The pizza came, and while a nice size, I was struck by the thin-ness of the crust. To be fair, I think it was described as thin on the menu, and I’m probably comparing it to American pizzas – which are the only other vegan pizzas I’ve experienced.

Great pizza, but cheese not working visually! 😁

It looked fine, but not super-pretty. I can’t help but be blunt here – visually the melted cheese had a jizzy appearance, like someone had just serviced themself over the pizza (if that needed explaining!) I’ve noticed that lots of the UK vegan cheeses have that kind of an appearance when melted. As opposed to the amazing Daiya cheese in the US, which when melted, looks, like…well….melted cheese. We clearly still have a way to go on the visual side of things!

I could have done with slightly more of each topping too. Though I can accept that this might be me being Greedy Gertie.

Now I’ve had a moan – I’ll tell you what it tasted like.

It tasted pretty great. It was a perfectly fine pizza.

The cheese tasted a lot better than it looked! It tasted of cheese, not rubbery or weird – definitely cheesy. I think a non-vegan would tell it wasn’t dairy cheese by the look of it, but perhaps not by the taste.

I gave some pizza to my non-vegan friend and she was surprised at how nice it was. I’m pretty sure the vegetable toppings were fresh as fresh, and the crust was not too hard – as crusts sometimes can be.

Even though I love my American pizzas, I’m pretty sure that this is a more authentic Italian experience.

I’m definitely coming back for this pizza, and I’m going to encourage my local vegan (and non-vegan) community to try it too.

Now for my favourite bit.

The dessert choices other than the above-mentioned chocolate praline torte were just your classic lemon or strawberry sorbets. But why in the name of all that’s holy would you not go for the torte???

I wasn’t ready for just how delicious the torte was.

Chocgasm alert!

 

I was expecting a nice chocolatey, gooey vibe; but this was beyond Beyond.

You know when you involuntarily make a sex face while you’re eating something extraordinarily delicious? Well, that happened.

The coconut and chocolate swirl gelato made for a perfect pairing, and more flakes of ‘honeycomb’ were sprinkled on top.

It was rich and creamy, not bitter and not too sweet.

I don’t know what else to say about the torte except that when you eat it time stops and it becomes all about what is going on in your mouth. I can normally eat and yak and do fifty other things at once, but this torte demanded my absolute attention. It violently stole my attention in fact (um, in a good way!),  and I become a slave to the taste and texture sensations I was experiencing. Hehe – yes, I know I’ll never be a food writer, but I don’t know how else to explain it.

The portion size was spot on. When I’d finished – I was definitely done, but didn’t feel like I’d eaten too much.

Another wonderful thing – I don’t think this torte is particularly unhealthy either, since the base is made from dates, hazelnuts and walnuts. And we all know dark chocolate is good for you, so…

Without exaggeration, I’ve spent a large proportion of my time since that Saturday dreaming about the torte, trying to conjure up the taste and checking over and over again online to see which branch of Zizzi I could get to this weekend to grab some more (they do take away, so I knew this was possible).

The space was large and with all different types of seating, so you can sit in a cosy booth; on the banquette seating; or at the tables for two in the middle. And unlike lots of UK restaurants, the tables weren’t too crowded together. It felt like there was enough space for everyone, even when it got busy.

Service was efficient and friendly, and the staff were all knowledgeable about the food.

To conclude: I highly recommend Zizzi for vegans. If my pizza and the standard of the food I tasted was anything to go by, then all the vegan dishes are totally solid.

It’s a great lunch spot, but personally I’d even go there for a long dinner with friends or family. But possibly that’s just me; I prefer hustly-bustly places full of a cross-section of the community rather than your swanky-wanky gaffes.

Hustly-bustly, swanky-wanky. Hee.

And when you go, for the love of Pete – get the torte!!

 

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Review of Beyond Sushi (The Best Sushi You’ll Ever Taste)

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I’m freshly back from a short jaunt to NYC, and I HAVE to share my experience at Beyond Sushi.

We’ve visited New York several times, and I’d heard tell of the gloriousness of Beyond Sushi, and even walked past the branch in Chelsea Market; but not stopped to eat there because it looked tiny, and didn’t seem like there was an area to sit down comfortably.

When we’re on vacation, we like to sit down properly ya know? We like to enjoy our time in a restaurant – we do this so little at home in London so we really like to savour the experience when we’re away, rather than just grabbing food and eating it quickly at a bar or a high table.

However, we’re MAJOR sushi lovers, and on this visit it was time to try this place we’d heard so much about.

There are three branches of Beyond Sushi – in Chelsea Market, Union Square, and Midtown West.

Since we knew we wanted to spend our last afternoon in Central Park, we chose the Midtown West branch.

I had no idea if the space was as small as the Chelsea Market branch but decided to give it a go anyway, if the food was as good as I’d been led to believe, it would be worth the discomfort, right? I’m a foodie and I’ll suffer a LOT to satisfy my palate 😀

But when we hit West 56th, I saw the frontage of the place and my heart sank. It was obvious the place was REALLY tiny. Even kinda hole-in-the-wall’y.’ This wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending my last precious lunchtime in NYC.

On walking in I saw there were around 5 or 6 high chairs at a wall bar, and maybe 3 or 4 tiny tables for two. The place is SO narrow though, and it was SO PACKED, that nothing looked comfortable. Wherever you sat (IF you got a seat in the first place) people would be brushing past you, constantly knocking you.

It was too late to turn back now, so as soon as I saw two of the better wall bar chairs become free, I got my partner to bag them, and I got in line to order.

The menu looked delicious but there wasn’t much time to make selections before someone was yelling at me for my order. It was so noisy and bustly it was difficult to think straight. I went for three of the sushi rolls, but if the atmosphere had been more relaxed I’d probably have ordered from the rest of the menu too.

They have noodle salads, noodle soups, incredible sounding dumplings and wraps; but if you’re new to the place, you don’t have long enough to peruse the menu in this cramped, crowded type of set-up; which is a shame.

I guess this place is great for if you know the menu well, and can go in and order what you want straight away.

There seemed to be lots of workers on their lunch breaks that had ordered take-out, and were just there to pick up their food. The place (at least this branch) seemed to cater best to these people; OR, those that just waltz in knowing exactly what they want ’cause they’ve been so many times before.

As well as the sushi rolls, I also ordered a seaweed salad, and a small bowl of kimchi. We had to catch the red-eye home to London later that night, and kimchi is great for keeping the bugs away!

The kimchi and salad were served quickly, and before too long, out came the rolls, and OMG, they looked specTACular.

I’d ordered these:

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Check out the La Fiesta and the Chic Pea
My top choice - the Mighty Mushroom!
My top choice – the Mighty Mushroom!

They looked like this:

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WOW!

What magnificent, gourmet sushi.

The one that stood out for me was the Mighty Mushroom. That blob of shiitake truffle on top so perfectly and subtly infused each piece with smoke and salt and…just…shiitake-ishness (!) I could’ve eaten these all day.

The next best for me, La Fiesta, was still incredible. You could taste each element just enough, and each complimented the other delightfully in taste and texture.

My other choice, the Chic Pea, was still delicious, even though the other two were slightly better. I love tahini with anything, so I was always going to love this.

The seaweed salad couldn’t have been any better unless it had been brought to me by a hot naked dude. I’ve had plenty of crappy ones where there’s too much added sugar and the seaweed is too hard and chewy. This seaweed was fresh, soft and delicately flavoured.

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As for the house-made kimchi, it looked like a classic kimchi, but I felt it may have contained  pear? I thought I could taste it. I’m normally weird about fruit in savoury stuff, but pear or no, it was great.

I learnt later that it’s the Spicy Mang roll that everyone raves about (avo, mango, cucumber, spiced veggies and toasted cayenne). I saw it on the menu, but again, BLECH with the whole fruit in savoury stuff.

So I didn’t go there.

Next time I’ll quit being a special snowflake and try it.

I was absolutely blown away by this food, and could’ve easily eaten another round of everything – not because I was still hungry, but just so that eating this scrumptiousness wouldn’t have to stop.

As we were eating, the place cleared out a bit (this happened around 1pm) and it became a much more comfortable atmosphere. If we’d have known, we’d have come a bit later to avoid the lunch rush.

Inside Beyond Sushi, Midtown West branch, as the rush hour calms down!
Inside Beyond Sushi, Midtown West branch, as the rush hour calms down!

Look. The food really IS beyond sushi, it’s BEYOND BEYOND. I’d come back in a heartbeat. I’ll dream about these rolls until I get the chance to come back and eat them again.

But, it’s such a shame Beyond Sushi don’t have bigger spaces and can’t make newbies more comfortable, and feel more welcome.

I mean, I get it – they don’t need to. You taste it; you’re hooked, and you’d come back even if they set up in a public toilet.

You’d go and see a good gig in a cramped, hot hall without a/c; you’d go to the theatre and sit on the floor to see a good play – anything that is so good it feeds the soul you’d happily suffer a little discomfort for.

It’d just be nice to be able to eat this gorgeous food in a comfortable space, like omnivores get to do all the time.

My recommendation: Go to Beyond Sushi ASAP. Avoid lunch hours and rush hours. Maybe look at the menu online first, decide what you want, order take-out then eat in a nearby park.

I think next time we’ll get take-out from the Chelsea Market branch, then go up to the High Line, bag sunbeds, and eat in (relative) peace.

 

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Vegan In Brooklyn

This week: Coming to you from NYC!!!

OK, Brooklyn.

But you know what? I ADORE Brooklyn.

I’d much rather stay here than in Manhattan.

It’s peaceful; has stoop-tastic brownstones; wide, tree-lined cobbled streets; amazing street art; cool restaurants – MANY of which are vegan; and a great atmosphere.

You don’t need to be in hipster Williamsburg to get the great vegan food either. We have three vegan places (two entirely vegan and one vegetarian/vegan place) within twenty minutes walk of where we are staying in Park Slope.

As I have limited time, and as I’ve written about New York restaurants before, both here and here; if it’s OK with you, for this week I’m just gonna leave you with a few pics from where we ate today. In Brooklyn.

Hightail it to both of these joints if you get the chance.

Start salivating…..NOW!

First up, from the V Spot:

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Fried avocado in breadcrumbs with spicy mayo and lime wedge. As delicious as it sounds

 

Jamaican wrap with collards, onions, vegan cheese, vegan chicken, Caribbean brown rice and peas. Spicy and scrumptious.
Jamaican wrap with collards, onions, vegan cheese, vegan chicken, Caribbean brown rice and peas. Spicy and scrumptious
Chilaquiles & tofu scramble topped with vegan cheese
Chilaquiles & tofu scramble topped with vegan cheese. This did not touch the sides of my partner’s mouth.
Lightly fried plantain with a thin curry sauce. Because if there's plantain on the menu, I'm having it
Lightly fried plantain with a thin curry sauce. Because if there’s plantain on the menu, I’m having it

For dessert, we ambled a few blocks to the Park Slope branch of Van Leeuwens Artisanal Ice Creamery. These pics are actually from the branch in the West Village in NYC, because they were better than my pics from today.

Van Leeuwens is not a wholly vegan place, but has a decent vegan menu, and the ice-creams are artisanal, with quality ingredients (the vegan ones at least 🙂 ).

The base of the vegan ice-cream is coconut milk, almond and cashew milk. I was a little disappointed that they’d run out of the pistachio flavour AND the coconut whipped cream on both of our visits, but whatever. The ice-cream we had was still very, very good.

Behold these beauties:

One mint choc chip/cookie dough, one banana nut/matcha. Bliss.
One mint choc chip/cookie dough, one banana nut/matcha. Bliss.

 

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10 Top Tips For Happy Vegan Travel!

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If you’re a new vegan and wondering how you’ll cope being vegan when you travel, worry not – I’ve got you covered every which way of the compass you could travel!!!

I’ve previously written about how not to go hungry on plane trips here, so that’s the beginning of your journey sorted (some of the snack ideas would of course apply to road and train trips too).

We vacation in America two or three times a year, and everywhere we’ve been absolutely spoiled with vegan options. It’s definitely one of the reasons we return again and again.

Nothing beats being able to walk into a restaurant that is MADE FOR YOU! Where you don’t have to question the wait staff or read labels; you can just kick back and be ‘normal’!

What I love, possibly even more than a vegan restaurant, is a non-vegan restaurant that has a separate vegan menu. It’s good for non-vegans to see huge plates of delicious, colourful food being served to vegans to bust that tenacious old myth that vegan food is boring.

Even a few vegan options clearly marked on a menu is very welcome, assuming the options are yum and imaginative, not just a token offering (hello, ubiquitous roasted Mediterranean veg!)

Obviously big ‘western’ cities have lots of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. But what do you do if you’re going to a country that doesn’t even have a fringe understanding of veganism; or where refusing any animal food at all would be perceived as rude; and where you understand NOT A WORD of the local language?

There doesn’t seem to be many places in the world where it’s not possible to eat vegan. Many countries have lots of staple dishes that are vegan anyway, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere that didn’t sell fresh fruit and veg. It’s not always easy to eat HEALTHY vegan food – but assuming you’re on vacation or a short business trip, the odd plate of fries or bag of chips won’t kill you!

Personally, I’ve eaten well as a vegan in Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, France and Spain, and there are ways and means to eat well pretty much everywhere.

Well, what are they?

 

1. Acquaint yourself with the Happy Cow website

Happy Cow lists all the vegan restaurants, vegan-friendly restaurants, and health stores (where you can pick up vegan snacks) in a place.

There aren’t many regions that won’t have at least a couple of listings (I just randomly tried Haiti, Tangiers and Havana, and there were a couple of listings for each!)

Make Happy Cow your first port of call.

 

2. Think about renting a hotel suite with a full kitchen, or an apartment so you can cook ‘at home’

There are plenty of hotel chains that do suite rooms with full kitchens. If there aren’t too many vegan dining out options where you’re going, then shop at a local market or supermarket and cook in!

Otherwise, try renting out an apartment, house or villa through Airbnb or one of the other travel websites. I’ve used Airbnb several times in New York, LA, and I’m just about to do it again in Tennessee.  There is no better way to experience living like a native than shopping for your dinner with everyone else in the town.

 

3. If you have to stay in a regular hotel room, ask for a refrigerator / microwave

Most hotel rooms these days either come equipped with a refrigerator and/or a microwave – OR a fridge is available on request. Keep the fridge stocked with fresh fruit, nuts, bread, and any vegan snacks you come across.

 

4. The travel kettle is your new best friend

Pack a small travel kettle, and you’ve got the fixin’s for miso soup, ANY powdered soup, porridge, some types of noodles, and some instant meals that just require hot water (Mcdougalls soup pots for example). Just make sure to have an adaptor if the electricity sockets are different at your destination!

 

5. Sometimes it’s all about sides and appetisers baby!

As mentioned, lots of staple foods in many European, African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries are vegan by default. If all the mains on a menu contain meat or fish; look for sides or appetisers (‘meze’ in some countries) based on beans, lentils or veg, and order several of these instead. Some may contain yoghurt, but you should find enough that don’t.

 

6. Are you all about the ‘fly & flop’? Pick a hotel with a buffet

‘Fly & flops’ are usually located in sunny climes, and sunny climes always have fantastic fruit,  and salad vegetables right? Fill up at the hotel buffet on fresh produce, good breads, bean dishes, hummus and salsa.

 

7. Ooh, this one’s long!  If you’re going somewhere where the culture is very different to the one you’re familiar with, you will need to make some decisions

What do I mean by this?

Well, for example: Once, in rural Upper Egypt, we were invited to someone’s house, where the mother of the family had cooked us a fabulous meal. Luckily, plenty of it was plant-based by default, so we could tuck in heartily without offending anyone.

Over the meal however, the subject came up that I was vegan, and my Egyptian friend (whose mother had prepared the spread) said that the filling of the delicious stuffed hot cabbage leaves we were eating – which was a herby, spicy rice – had probably been cooked in a meat broth.

Now I’d already eaten some, and had intended having more.

What did I do?

I chose to overlook the fact that meat broth had probably been used.

Why?

Look, its one thing if you’re in the States at a Mexican restaurant and ask the wait staff if the beans have been cooked in animal broth or fat. You are in the US, and Mexican chefs and waitstaff have probably already come across this question before.

However, the context I found myself in that day in Egypt was completely different. Already, the concept of ‘vegan’ was insane to them – it was explained to me that only poor people ate NO meat. I understood that if my friend’s mother had used animal products in our food, it’s because she wanted very much to please us. There was a donkey (that was all ribs) tied up outside the house, and sick stray kittens all over the place. It wasn’t me that was going to cause a massive paradigm shift in understanding that day or even make anyone think that veganism was a credible lifestyle. Complaining about the food would’ve just been mightily ungracious and rude.

I managed to avoid the meat, but continued to eat veg and beans that may or may not have been cooked in meat stock.

It’s quite common in African, Asian and South American countries for beans to be cooked in meat stock and you therefore might find yourself having to make the decision that ‘what the eye doesn’t see won’t harm you,’ i.e., if animal products are not visible, then go ahead and eat the beans and veg you come across.

This is completely your call. My motto is ‘do what you can.’ To me, veganism isn’t about being perfect, or about starving to make a point. It’s about doing as much as is reasonably possible to avoid unnecessary cruelty and environmental destruction.  If I can’t see dairy, eggs, fish or meat in a dish that looks like veg and beans, and this dish is likely the best I’ll get all day, I’ll eat it.

You might feel differently. Like I said; your call.

 

8. Familiarise yourself with words for ‘no meat,’ ‘no milk,’ ‘no butter’ etc in the language of your host country

I went to Valencia, Spain a few years ago, and I’ll never forget ‘sin carne,’ ‘sin leche,’ ‘sin queso’, ‘sin mantequilla,’ ‘sin heuvos,’ ! Learning the words for meat, cheese, butter, eggs and fish (and the word for ‘vegan’ if there is one!) in the language of the place you are visiting, will help you better avoid these foods.

 

9. Don’t overlook street food

There is often great street food available in lots of countries, much of it vegan; and because you can watch it being made, it is fresh and you can see exactly what goes into it. Though you may need to make the ‘do I overlook it if I can’t see it?‘ decision, as per Tip number 8.

 

10. Pre-pack dried non-perishable goodies

If you are going somewhere where you truly anticipate finding vegan food to be a problem, hit up your health store (or supermarket with a good health aisle). Grab some good quality nut/date/seed/fruit bars; fill a few bags with nuts and dried fruit from the bulk bins; get some powdered miso; and breadsticks are versatile, light and last a while, so get some of these too. Any vegan cookies in this shop? Buy some. Some small sachets of soy sauce would be a good idea also.

You can intersperse these protein-filled snacks with (well-washed) local fresh produce when you can. Your destination may well have a grain as the base of its traditional dishes, i.e. rice; so if you can, have plain rice, tomatoes or other available vegetables and flavour with the soy sauce sachets.

 

Happy travels, send us a postie!

 

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Pain Quotidien UK; A Review

Having visited the US lots in the past 10 years, and having consulted Happy Cow a bazillion times to find vegan restaurants (or restaurants with vegan options) in various towns and cities, I’ve long been aware of the Pain Quotidien chain of rustic, casual bakery/restaurants.

I’ve just read they are Belgian of origin, but the headquarters are now in New York. You can find them in London; many cities in the US; Paris, Belgium and Australia; and you can find franchises of PQ in places such as Japan, Brazil, UAE and Spain.

To vegans they are known for having very clearly marked vegan options on all their menus, and to others for having communal tables in their spaces (don’t panic Brits! They have smaller, private tables too. Or is it just me that gets nervous at the word communal 🙂 )

The vegan options are not just salad or hummus and celery sticks, but proper, grown-up starters and main courses that feel like they would rival the non-vegan dishes in taste and texture.

I have no idea why I didn’t try them out for the longest time.

Earlier this year, I finally got around to trying my first Pain Quotidien in Los Angeles (the Larchmont branch).

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t discovered them earlier!

The space was attractive, with a little shop selling some of their own artisanal products – jams, chutneys etc. The garden was beautiful, full of sweet-smelling flowers – but this was Los Angeles, you wouldn’t get this everywhere!

I opted for some lentil soup and salad, which were both substantial and thoughtfully flavoured. The salad wasn’t too heavily dressed (this is a common mistake in restaurants!), it was just perfect. My partner had a killer tofu scramble, and I washed my meal down with some delicious house chai with almond milk.

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The hot drinks are served in bowls, which I love; it reminds me of when I lived in the south of France.

I was really impressed with the food, value, service and ambience at this Pain Quotidien and will always bear PQ in mind now when looking for somewhere to eat in the US.

 

So how does Pain Quotidien UK measure up?

Well, I can only truly speak of one branch, I have no idea if it’s representative or not, though there are elements that are the same in every PQ – the wooden chairs and tables, the rustic atmosphere, the communal seating etc.

The menus are all similar but there are variances based on locale and season. There always does seem to be solid vegan options however, this doesn’t change.

On the rainy August Bank Holiday Monday, after an event that ended up being a washout at the Royal Festival Hall, we decided to try the local (Royal Festival Hall) branch of Pain Quotidien, for a late lunch.

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This particular branch is very close to Waterloo station, so as well as the space you see in the above photo, there’s also a basement level hall under the actual railway arches, which adds a nice local touch.

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The vegan options are clearly marked on the menu with a carrot sign, like so:

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As well as a vegan soup and a couple of decent vegan salads (forgot to take a photo – one had quinoa, taboulé, raw vegetables, avocado and organic rapeseed oil and the other was freshly shaved fennel, raw slaw, chickpeas and basil vinaigrette – no iceberg lettuce here!), they have a couple of vegan ‘tartine’ options:

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The other was also avocado toast but with lemon and cumin.

These were the hot dishes, or mains (the chilli seems to be available at most locations):

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Some straight-up sides:

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And desserts:

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They also do breakfasts, and vegan choices include porridge, fruit salad and granola.

 

Now I’m a huge lover of chilli, and have wanted to try PQ’s version since I learned they had one, so my choice was easy. My partner went for the quinoa cake.  We figured we couldn’t go wrong adding a side of roasted baby potatoes!

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This was a bean chilli, But I think I counted just 3 beans in the entire dish!

I ADORE chilli and it’s a great dish to veganise because it really doesn’t need meat. The beans carry the flavour marvellously, and if you have enough beans in there (you can chuck some corn in there too if you want to add another texture) you don’t need anything else.

Unfortunately, this chilli contained a tonne of  – I’m guessing it was soy protein or TVP? Now a little of this would have been fine, especially if there were more beans for variance of texture.

But whoever made this dish had been a bit heavy-handed with the soy protein, or maybe this is just the PQ recipe? It felt like a meat-eater had made it and thought ‘I’ll chuck a tonne of this meat-substitute in ‘cos that’s what vegans want.’ It definitely made for an, um, ‘over-chewy’ experience.

Yet…the actual taste was great. It absolutely came up to scratch flavour-wise. The guacamole that came with it was good too.

The soy sour cream was completely superfluous, and tasted more like soy yoghurt. Then one of the wait-staff told us it actually WAS soy yoghurt.

The dish came with a couple slices of bread, and it was strange that it was served with regular butter when it’s a vegan dish! I get that non-vegans may order this dish too, but maybe give us some vegan spread, and if someone wants regular butter they’ll ask?

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This was the quinoa cake. You know, it was ok. It tasted just fine. But I don’t know how they came up with it. The beetroot ‘caviar’ tasted just like mashed-up beetroot, and the carrot hummus tasted just like, well, mashed-up carrot.

Because these things are nice enough in and of themselves, this dish was, uh, nice enough. The quinoa cake was lightly flavoured with herbs, and not as dry as it perhaps looks. It was slightly weird to me that the cake was hot and the other elements were cold, but maybe this is a thing, I don’t know.

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The roasted baby potatoes were great, but I thought roast potatoes were supposed to be a bit browner and crunchier? Look, they were good, let’s leave it at that.

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I LOOOVVED my matcha latte! Hurrah! But can I have one final moan and say it could’ve been a bit hotter?

My partner enjoyed his coffee 🙂

I’m always thrilled to see agave available as a sweetener. This has been available for years in many US cafes, but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it here,

Verdict:

If my experience of PQ in Los Angeles was pretty representative of all US branches – I’d say it’s an excellent choice for snacks, breakfasts, brunches, lunches and early dinners (they tend to close earlier than regular restaurants).

Service was second-to-none, as was the freshness, taste and value of the food.

If you find one with outdoor seating in a pretty space as we did, even better.

I’ll ALWAYS consider PQ while in the US if there is no dedicated vegan restaurant available, and you know what? Maybe even if there is.

As for PQ UK (which maybe should be PQ London – it’s the only city in the UK with branches) I’d still consider it. It wasn’t bad, it’s just that nothing was great, and a few things just niggled. It’s so great to not feel niggled when dining out!

I don’t know how much the fact that I’d consider it is due to there not being many other options.

Next time I’d probably stick to a soup and salad, which I’m sure they’d do well.

The service at this particular branch, like the food, was just ok. The ambience was nice, especially in the basement arches, and they do have free wifi – but it was painfully slow, so maybe not great for working, just playing.

For the portion sizes, it’s definitely overpriced, and there is a discretionary 12.5% service charge added onto the bill. The wait staff told us they get 70% of this and the restaurant gets 30%.

I will say that I definitely want to pass by and grab a matcha latte to go. They’re a whole quid cheaper to take out, and extra hot, it’ll be yummy.

Have you visited PQ anywhere, specifically for the vegan options? How did YOU find it? Does my review hit home? Or you think I’m being a bit of a grumpy-pants?

Hit reply and let me know!

 

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Vegan in Vegas

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 ADTeasdale, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

I’m just back from my third Las Vegas trip, and once again had an amazing time (apart from the 5 ½ hour delay getting there – cheers American Airlines!).

I’m guessing the first words you think of on hearing the name of this desert city are casinos, whores, steakhouses, strippers, cheesy shows, decadence and opulence, tat and trinkets, debauchery and desperation.

Maybe you think of expressionless, over-tanned, leathery-skinned old people in sun visors clutching on to coke cups full of quarters, banging away at the slots until the early hours.

Or maybe it’s the Chinese business men (‘cos it is always Chinese men for the moment) sitting stoically at the baccarat tables; and serving them are the slightly hard-faced, scantily-dressed, fake-boobed cocktail servers (‘cos they are always female for the moment – when women have more money and power, then we’ll see the topless buff waiters!).

If the name Las Vegas gives you a visual similar to the one I’ve described, you are not wrong. You’ll find all this nonsense and plenty more just like it.

The first time we came to Vegas six years ago, I was expecting it to be nothing BUT how I just described it. We were doing a road trip through the southern Utah National Parks and I was absolutely disgusted that we’d have to fly into Vegas as a starting point!

But, sleaze aside (you do have to kind of compartmentalise this – unless you’re into it of course!), I have to admit we were a little mesmerised by the spectacular Bellagio fountains, the stunning fresh flower creations everywhere, the insane daredevil rides at the top of the Stratosphere, the fake volcanoes and light displays etc. The Vegas strip forces you to forget your cares and suckers you into a state of awe and wonder at the outrageousness, the ridiculousness, the sparkle and fantasy of it all. There is no place like this anywhere else in the world and its frivolous and fun; but definitely guilt-inducing at the same time when you think of the water and energy it takes to maintain (in the middle of the freakin’ desert!), and the poor Latino immigrants everywhere on the strip handing out flyers for prostitutes who undoubtedly deserve our sympathy even more than they do.

There is another Vegas however.

For me, Vegas means quick access to lush, pine-forested mountains (35 minutes away) and gorgeous red rock canyons (25 minutes away). There is the 12,000 foot Mount Charleston and the surrounding Spring Mountains that are almost paradisiacal to hike in, and only forty minutes away from the city. The smell of the sun-soaked pines at that altitude is addictive; you just want to breathe it in forever.

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Me, interacting wid naycha..

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The ancient canyons with their red and white strata are like nature’s own playground; there seem to be steps perfectly placed for you to climb as high or as low as you want, all the while being gently cooled by the desert wind (though wear a hat!).

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Vegas for me ALSO means great food.

Believe it or not, there are plentiful vegan options in Vegas.

Now it’s not New York or Los Angeles, or even Austin or Portland in terms of the sophistication and imagination of the plant-based food, and there is not particularly a health-awareness to it. You can get great superfood salads of course, but anything involving flour (veggie burger buns, pastry, cakes, pizza bases, burritos etc) is likely to be white flour. I try and avoid white flour at all times because of these reasons; but it’s up to you if you want to make an exception when you’re on vacation.

There are still great meals to be had nevertheless, and even the US Airways (international) magazine advertises the fact:

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Part of the reason for the plant-based Vegas restaurant scene is because big time hotelier, Steve Wynn, is vegan himself, and has ensured that there are lots of vegan menu options at ALL of the restaurants and cafes at his opulent Wynn and Encore hotels. With ten fine dining and nine casual dining establishments, you could eat at a different place every meal! Several of these restaurants actually have a separate vegan menu. Here’s one from the Terrace Point Cafe at the Wynn:

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It says ‘vegetarian,’ but everything is vegan – I guess ‘vegetarian’ is a less scary word for some!
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The French toast
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The Ranchero scramble

This progressive attitude isn’t confined to Wynn’s restaurants only. There are several restaurants at the Mandalay Bay with fantastic vegan options – and Mexican restaurant Hussongs and pizzeria Slice of Vegas have separate vegan menus! MGM and the Aria also have excellent vegan choices on some of their restaurant menus.

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Soft corn Gardein fish tacos at Hussongs Cantina

Lots of hotel suites in Vegas have full kitchens, so if you get tired of eating out, you can shop at one of the several Whole Foods where vegans are extremely well catered for, and either eat from their hot/cold bar, or cook ‘at home.’

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Vegan friendly version of the iconic Las Vegas sign at Whole Foods

I’m always completely gobsmacked at the abundance of choice there is for vegans in shops in the US compared to the UK and Europe (and I live in London where we have the widest choice in the country!)

These are just SOME of the plant-based ice-creams on offer!

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Plenty of ready meals if you don’t want to go out but don’t fancy cooking!

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There is also better quality fresh veg and fruit. Huge bunches of full leaved kale and collard greens (not chopped to within an inch of its life, packaged in plastic and full of stalks).

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Bulk bins provide a multitude of cheap organic grains, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds. With all the choice available and at every budget level, it really IS easy to be vegan here. Also, there is practically NO limitation as to what you can eat, just in the veganised version – there is even vegan bacon if you are transitioning and have a bacon craving:

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We got through a pint of this…

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…two pints of this (not one after the other!)…

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…and a pint of Mint Choc Chip that we ate before I could take a photo. And we STILL lost weight because of all the mountain and canyon hiking!

 

It’s easy to believe Vegas is just a seedy, steakhouse ridden blight on the desert, especially when you read about places like the pretty odious Heart Attack Grill, with their ‘vegan menu’ of 100% full leaf tobacco..HARHAAAAAAAAAAAAAR…ugh.. (and where, surprise surprise, people actually die). But now, some steakhouses (the SW Steakhouse at the Wynn, for example) actually have excellent vegan menus!

It just once again proves that old cliche to be correct – never judge a book by its cover. Or, never judge a showy casino town by the, er, hookers and cigarette smoke.

Over three trips we’ve discovered the awe-inspiring natural beauty that surrounds Vegas, and the plethora of plant-based options open to us.

Now we know the quality and quantity of the vegan food options available and with the nature there is easy access to from Vegas, it’s often amongst our top choices for a get-away.

 

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Vegan On A Plane? Synch, Just Get Snack-Packin’!

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Vegan and flying long distance over the holidays? Celebrating somewhere abroad or jetting off for some sun?

How does a vegan optimise the in-flight meal experience, and avoid landing feeling hungry and cranky?

The first thing you should know is that plane food of any description is no great shizz, so you don’t need to feel bad that you are not well-catered for – NOBODY is. ‘That meal I had last night on the plane was the best meal I’ve ever had,’ said NO-ONE EVER.

Once you’ve booked your flight, go to the airline website where you should have the option to select your seat, and any special meals. The code to select to ensure a vegan meal is usually VGML. Depending on the airline, other options you might have to select are ‘vegetarian non-dairy,’ or ‘pure vegetarian.’

The benefit of a special meal is that you nearly always get served first, before the omni masses, so you can sit and munch smugly, listening to their bellies rumble! The downside is that sometimes they don’t have the vegan meal you ordered, and you really need to be prepared for this – it’s happened to me more than once!

If your vegan meal HAS been forgotten, you can ask if there are any Asian meals left (or they could be marked as Hindu). These are usually a curry, or a dahl, and are normally vegan.

Otherwise, make sure you have a good supply of fallback food (though you’ll probably end up eating it anyway – airplane meals aren’t that substantial).

Good snacks to take (remember, there are some foods that won’t get past security) are home-made sandwiches – just eat them sooner rather than later if they are made with perishable goods. Humous, tomato, rocket and spring onion sandwiches in wholewheat pitta (pitta is good because it holds the contents well) are fabulous; or peanut butter, tomato and spring onion, with a splash of soy sauce is another quick and easy choice.

Wholewheat breadsticks, and sachets of dried vegan organic leek and potato soup (you can find these at Whole Foods or other health stores), or sachets of miso soup are good for an easy hot food option. The flight attendants can give you a cup of hot water, and you can just pour a sachet of the powdered soup in and mix.

If you are pushed for space, good old nuts and dried fruit will satisfy an empty stomach. Vegan nut and cereal bars are compact and travel well, so if you don’t get to them on the flight there, you’ll have them for the way back.

Assuming you get your meal as ordered, don’t forget to check the little sachets and things that come with your VGML meal – some airlines are not too hot on the finer details. While the main dish will definitely be vegan, the spread for the bread, or the dressing for a salad, may not be.

What to expect from the meal? Weeelll, it’s kind of hit and miss, but DO remember – the omnis are NOT having a better time than you.

And, there are random surprises. On a flight last year I was thrilled by a tasty quinoa and black bean salad, and several times on overnight long-haul flights I’ve woken up to a delicious whole grain vegan cookie for breakfast!

I’ve never come across soy milk being offered for tea and coffee. It’s a good idea to always ask if they carry it EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW THEY DON’T. Why? Because, the more people that ask, the more the message gets out there that the market is changing, and soon enough they will HAVE to carry it, it’ll be so mainstream. Crafty, huh?

Bottom line, travel prepared! Everybody should take lots of snacks on longer flights, so it really isn’t extra work for vegans.

Happy travels, where ever you may be going. I’m totally jealous!

Any cool ideas for vegan plane-friendly snacks I haven’t mentioned? Please share in the comments.

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