Waterside Bistro Cafe Bar, Totnes

Let us now consider the vegetarian burger. The veggie burger, in its various guises, is a dish that crops up regularly in pubs and chains. To those who devise the menus, its inclusion probably seems inspired: it trades on a concept familiar to everyone, it’s simple, easily understood and (added bonus) accessorized by cheap stock ingredients available in any pro kitchen.

And yet it’s a dish I routinely avoid. Why? Because I want vegetarian food that celebrates vegetables, that’s why. Burger is vegetarian food that celebrates meat. I don’t want to celebrate meat. I don’t want to look like someone who’s been tempted to try veggie food because it can be – just like meat!

But actually, my dislike goes deeper than that. In culinary terms, the veggie burger is a flawed concept. Unlike their fleshy counterparts, veggie burgers simply don’t have that lipid-y, membrane-coating moistness that mitigated by the mopping, soaking action of the bread produces a classic combination. No. Technical limitations mean the veggie burger is almost always dry. So a mere few seconds’ thought should make it screamingly obvious that it can never benefit from being thrust between two hunks of a substance that is equally dry.

Waterside Bistro falls into precisely this trap. I was cornered into ordering its ‘Falafel burger served in a rustic bun with mayo, relish, tomato, gherkins, salad & French fries’ because I was hungry and the only other vegetarian mains were ‘Linguine with pesto, roast cherry tomatoes, rocket, parmesan & pine nuts’ – a type of dish that, from experience in other places, can leave the diner feeling a bit unsatisfied – or pizza (boring).

Taken individually, the various elements were OK. Although it’s hard to see how ‘felafel burger’ could ever be an improvement on classic felafel, this one certainly tasted of chick peas. Additionally, the relish had a good kick of sweet paprika and the bun was soft (although I’d struggle to pinpoint anything that was distinctively ‘rustic’ about it). But put them together, and it was the usual story: you need so much salad and so much sauce of one kind or another to overcome the combined dryness of bread and burger that unless the burger is a lot more muscular than this one was, you end up losing it altogether.

So – just a suggestion – if falafel is to be the inspiration, why not take a look at how they do it in the Middle East, its land of origin? There, it’s street food, served inside a pita pocket which holds and contains the necessary lubrication (salad and hot sauce), but is also thin enough to keep the different textures in balance and not overload with dry and chewy.

Chips came with my burger – the long thin sort. In the trendy mini-bucket everyone uses to serve chips these days, they looked like ghostly fingers feeling their way back to the light. I prefer my chips big and fat really, but that’s just a personal thing; I won’t hold it against anyone.

In fact as a venue, I liked Waterside very much. The décor is unpretentious plain white – but it doesn’t need to be more elaborate because with an atmosphere this relaxed and buzzy, who’s looking at what’s on the walls? Service was friendly, and if the evening had been warmer, I’ve no doubt a table in the large outdoor dining area beside the River Dart would have been pleasant indeed.

But back to the food. The veggie burger represents – on a plate, as it were – one of the big conundrums of vegetarian menus. Admittedly, places like Waterside are not here to be evangelists for vegetarianism. But as a general question, are people more inclined to try vegetarian food if it’s served as veg-ified versions of familiar favourites (even when they don’t really work in vegetarian form)? Or is there more encouragement in something relatively unfamiliar (for example, actual felafel, in actual pita bread) that tastes great? Discuss.

Waterside Bistro Café Bar, The Plains, Totnes TQ9 5YS. Falafel burger served in a rustic bun with mayo, relish, tomato, gherkins, salad & French fries, £9.95


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