There’s quick service, and then there’s ‘door’s that way, Sunshine’ service. At Willow Vegetarian Restaurant, my meal arrived with such disconcerting haste that I suspected the latter, especially as the waiter met my surprise with the sour observation that ‘if you order thali here, it’s always quick’. Obvious flaw in this explanation: the thali was the only thing on the menu, and no one else seemed to be getting fed at the speed of Formula One.
Aside from the restaurant’s impeccable vegetarian credentials, it was the limited menu that tempted me in in the first place. A menu with so little choice is often the best kind, encouraging the hope that what they do do, they’ll do really, really well. After a brief mental struggle, I went for the large thali. Well, it was that either that or the small thali.
Willow is an established vegetarian restaurant in a town noted for its alternative culture. For an ambience so self-consciously right-on, the disapproving vibes that greeted my solo dining remain a bit of a mystery. ‘If that’s what you want….’ sighed my nemesis khaki-bermuda-clad waiter when I opted for a private table rather than a place at a communal table shared with strangers. He didn’t offer me anything to drink – just plonked an unasked-for jug of tepid tap water down in front of me – then returned with my food.
But while I barely had time to get my coat off, those sections of the clientèle whose dining arrangements met with staff approval proceeded with their evening at relaxed pace, and were even treated to jolly banter. To a family group at a nearby table, laugh-a-minute Mr SmileyTrousers was overheard mapping out the genetic heritage of ‘dark lager’ as ‘three of its grandparents were lagers and the other was a stout’. Laugh? I nearly choked on my tap water.
Of the three curries that formed the thali, meanwhile, the least successful was the Sabzi Bengali. This was billed as ‘a mixed curry containing green beans, potatoes, courgettes, tomatoes and mushrooms’. Devoid of gravy (and for me, all three curries lacked that touch of luxurious slurpiness), there wasn’t much to taste except the vegetables themselves. The mushrooms were unnecessary; their only contribution was a sliminess that contrasted (not in a good way) with the crispness of the other elements. They were also slightly burnt.
The Cauliflower Korma, creamy with ground almonds and yoghurt, and the Gajar Channa Kaju, singing with panch phoron spices, pulled things round a bit. Thanks to cashew nuts and yellow split peas, the latter also had an intriguing texture which no English adjective adequately conveys: a sort of dense crunchiness. The different properties of the three curries and the contrasts between them meant that as an ensemble piece, it worked well. What let it down was presentation.
The accepted method of serving thali is with each curry in a separate bowl. Not here. What you get here is a single circa 1973 ironstone plate, in the centre of which were an earthenware pot of dhal and a metal pot of raita. Snaking around and between the two was a long yellow earthwork of rice; fighting for whatever space was left at the edges were the three curries I had supposed to be stars of the show.
To bring them back centre stage, my impulse was to remove the two pots and put them on the table. But what if grains of rice clinging to their undersides left day-glo stains on the pretty floral tablecloths? Should I spoon the contents over the rice instead? Maybe, except that spoons didn’t feature in the cutlery muster. In the end, I sort of ate round them.
Willow’s stripped pine floors, 1930s-post-office wooden counter, random crockery and earnest values perhaps seem out-of-step with modern-day slickness. Personally, I have no problem with vegetarian restaurants shunning fads and staying quirky. But if you’re serving good food, why wouldn’t you show it off to its best advantage? Surely that’s rule number one whoever you are. (Rule number two, if anyone’s interested, is ‘don’t bother coming here if you’re eating alone’).
Willow Vegetarian Restaurant, 87 High St, Totnes TQ9 5LW. (No website, and don’t trying using one of them new-fangled mobile phone-y things in here neither, thanks very much. They’re banned). Large Thali (Wednesday Curry Night) £12.20