Even us provincials get our occasional chances to mix it with the stars. At a restaurant in Shrewsbury, I was once distracted from the mildly embarrassing ramblings of one of my relatives by the realisation that the tall chap peering in through the window was none other than TV funny man Greg Davies. And even in benighted Coventry, a lunching Neville Staple has been spotted by Yours Truly in Bella Italia. I could have done with someone like that rocking up at Las Iguanas when I was in there other day. Their arrival might have enlivened a rather boring meal.
The thing is, writing these food reviews can get repetitive. I’ve become resigned to being presented with endless variations on the same big five: burger, chilli, curry, risotto, pasta in sauce. Does the problem lie with the cheap chains my habitual stinginess forces me to frequent, their repertoire limited by the unholy trinity of keeping down costs, appealing to a wide audience and ensuring a uniform standard across a multiplicity of outlets? Or is it vegetarian food itself, which is simply too dull to invite culinary inventiveness?
From a vegetarian/vegan perspective, Las Iguanas is often cited as a high street beacon of hope. True, its dedicated menu, which I was offered upfront, no fuss, as soon as I sat down, normalises non-meat eating and in this sense represents a much-needed paradigm shift in British restaurant dining.
But even a cursory rummage through my own recipe book collection confirms that vegetarian food (and food generally) has seen massive development in the last thirty years. From socialist bookshops of the 1980s, I purchased utilitarian paperbacks filled with no-frills instructions for root veg casserole and red bean bake. Their sole nod to frivolity would be pen-and-ink illustrations of a carrot or (really pushing the envelope now) a courgette. These days, I can’t keep pace with the torrent of lavish coffee-table productions that cater for every possible nuance of meat-free eating, and – crucially – have moved decisively away from mere adaptations of classic omnivore standards.
Unfortunately, restaurants often seem not to have noticed. Offerings at Las Iguanas included (yawn) burger (black bean and er… beetroot, a vegetable whose Latin American culinary credentials had previously escaped me), a mildly novel curry (featuring palm hearts) and chilli. I briefly toyed with the idea of splurging on one of the more idiosyncratically Latin American dishes like fajitas, enchilladas or burritos, but – maybe because secretly I’m as stuck in the 1980s as my cook-books – when I’m out for a meal, I want something that looks like a meal; it doesn’t feel right to order something that looks like an ethnic sandwich. So I picked the chilli.
It was OK for six quid. The butternut squash could have done with a shade more cooking, but the tomato sauce was reasonably rich and there was a perceptible leavening of smoked paprika. The pink pickled onion provided a fun visual contrast to the orange of the vegetables plus a bracing burst of acidity. Only the ‘spring onion rice’ disappointed majorly; it was basically plain boiled rice with bits of slightly shrivelled greenery strewn haphazardly over the top.
One thing I did like about Las Iguanas was the bold sea-green and salmon-pink colour scheme. In the British context, its slightly retro feel was rather comforting. Under the circumstances, perhaps it was fitting to choose a dish that in vegetarian terms, also amounts to solid comfort food. The question then becomes: was comfort food what I wanted?
Honestly? No. Comfort food is best eaten at home, round the table with friends and family, or on the sofa in your PJs. It’s not the same when you have to get up and walk home afterwards. My main objective in eating out is to try new things. Quite possibly I’m eating at the wrong places, but I can’t help hoping that in ten years time, we’ll have moved on from vegetarian food that is merely an imitation of its omnivore equivalent, to vegetarian food that is about itself, and beholden to no meat. Places like Las Iguanas deserve recognition for their efforts. But in some ways, they’re taking us backwards instead of forwards.
Las Iguanas, Unit S4, Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, Coventry CV1 1LL. Veggie Chilli, £6 (Lunchtime and early evening menu).