The Garden Shed Cafe, Leamington Spa

When I first became a vegetarian, over thirty years ago, it was normal to have to explain to incredulous omnivores why you didn’t eat meat. These days, with plant-based diets officially one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements, you’re more likely to find yourself explaining to incredulous vegans why you still eat dairy.

As a twenty-first century vegetarian, I have begun to feel like an anachronism; a pallid stick of driftwood that the flood has flowed on past – coddling my cheese and eggs – too stiff and too wary to joyously divest myself and join the tide of history’s onward march. Few things make you feel older than this: an ideal you embraced in your youth as part of the solution, now condemned by self-righteous twenty-somethings as part of the problem.

According to its website, The Garden Shed is ‘the only 100% vegan restaurant in Warwickshire, Coventry and Birmingham’. It’s a tiny and very intimate venue that – and I mean this in a good way – feels only one step removed from eating in your friend’s comfortably cluttered  kitchen-diner (I sat next to the vacuum cleaner) while her mum carries on cooking.

The homely feel is intensified by the menu, described by the café as ‘good karma comfort food’. I had the daily special, which on the day I visited was Thai curry with salad or garlic bread. It was was perfect sofa food. The mini sweetcorn, red pepper and mange tout were fresh and intense, and the butternut squash was utter delight – soft and melting and caught right on the cusp of disintegration. The whole thing was bathed in a sauce creamy with coconut. Since being faced with a notorious offering that I swear had been flavoured with lemon washing-up liquid, I’ve always been slightly nervous around green curry. Here though, notes of lemongrass and coriander added nothing more sinister than freshness and balance.

I wish it had come with rice. It would have made a worthier and more satisfying partner than salad. On the up side, although I’m not usually a much of a pudding-fancier, I was left with enough room for one of the vegan cakes, which, in keeping with the comfort food theme, seemed to be something of a speciality.

It was perfectly enjoyable – although in a blindfold test, I’m not sure I’d have identified what I was served as chocolate cheesecake. Lacking the claggy acidity that’s the hallmark of the classic, it was more like a lumpy biscuit case filled with dense, faintly minted chocolate crème pâtissière. On a more positive note, on taste alone I’m not sure I would have identified it as vegan either; for what it was, it was very convincing. How ironic – given veganism’s hair-shirt reputation – that desserts are the area where mainstream is beckoning.

On a good day – OK, on a very good day – I could probably have made something almost as good as the curry I had here in my own kitchen. But that’s not the point. The point is that I actually could try it for myself one day because the cook-cum-waitress-cum-substitute-mum who was running the show single-handed sociably shared the recipe with me: it’s based on one of Jamie Oliver’s. I tracked it down online when I got home. Generosity of spirit is what typifies this place: caring for each other, and caring for the planet are all part of the same endeavour. I left feeling truly nourished.

Anyone who thinks ‘vegan comfort food’ is a contradiction in terms should come here. But was the experience enough to bring me round to full-on veganism? Probably not. I do eat a lot less dairy these days, but I don’t know how I’d cope without my two convenience-food old faithfuls, eggs and Greek yoghurt. On the other hand – and listen up, all you strident young bloods, with your scary all-or-nothing schtick – if vegan food could always be the warm and soothing cuddle I had here, maybe I could be persuaded to finally cross the divide.

The Garden Shed Café, 7 Regent Place, Leamington Spa CV31 1EH. Daily special £6.95. Cakes and tarts £1.50 – £3.25


Le Bistrot Pierre, Leamington Spa

Les Français, bien sûr, are a people notoriously impervious to the charms of vegetarianism. To a culture whose self-image is founded on a colossal back-catalogue of protein-rich cuisine-stroke-art-form, any volte-face is an insult to their national pride and a slap in the face to all they hold dear. Think of the contempt in Gérard Depardieu’s voice as he spat out the word ‘végétarien‘ in the film Green Card. Think of the word itself, which contains within it the dull slur of ‘nothing’.

No surprise then that Le Bistrot Pierre’s lunch time menu is – shall we say – a soupçon grudging in its concessions to meat-free eating. You could even say that the whole thing reads like an exercise in distancing the art of fancy French cooking from whatever unfortunate vegetarian dishes they’ve been forced to embrace for appearance sake. “You jumped-up accompaniments are nothing to do with me” it hisses. “And I’m going to make sure that no one in their right mind thinks that you are”.

First then: starters. From the ‘amuse gueules’ section, you can choose ‘olives marinées’ – in practice a dish of very salty olives and bits of garlic, whose inclusion was presumably rationalised by chef on the grounds that this is not really ‘cuisine’ at all, it’s just, well, a dish of olives. Alternatively, you can have ‘whole roasted garlic bulb with artisan bread blah blah blah’, which I suspect is merely the French having a laugh at our expense (ach, these vegetarians, they even  smell bad…).

Moving on to entrées, you could, I suppose, risk the ‘soupe’ – although it’s not guaranteed to be vegetarian – or opt instead for the ‘brioche et champignons’, a basically omnivore dish whose vegetarian potential may have been fortuitously discovered only when some dozy commis (English, sans doubte) accidentally forgot to add the expected leavening of Alsace bacon.

But although it’s obviously unsuitable for vegan (don’t push your luck) or gluten-free diets, if you can stomach the bread and the creamy sauce, this is really very enjoyable: a sort of posh Chesswood’s on toast, trilling notes of parsley and black pepper backed by deep rumbles of white wine, the whole lot sprawled over a slice of sodden, slightly sweet brioche. I polished it off in minutes. Bring on the mains.

Ah. With the mains, the strategy was to offer a choice between ‘salade’, (again not really haute cuisine – even the notoriously obtuse British can probably cope with tastefully arranging a few bits and pieces on a plate), or food that most of us would usually associate not with La France at all, but with Italy: risotto and pizza. Well, I say ‘pizza’; I say ‘Italy’. Technically, it was a ‘tarte’ flambée’ from the Alsace region, but more typically enjoyed in southern Germany, of which Alsace was once a part. I bet it had a sister called Margherita though.

I chose the courgette and goat’s cheese incarnation. It was an oddly ethereal offering – a paper-thin crust spread with crème fraîche mixture, then meagrely dotted with dainty cubes of courgette, onion, red pepper, the inevitable goat’s cheese (there was an awful lot of goat’s cheese on the menu) and a dusting of what tasted like dried herbs. Its anaemic whiteness, together with the smallness of the vegetable dice made me fancy it a candidate for a buffet served to the Faerie Queen. If it had arrived on a carriage drawn by a cavalcade of coachmen-mice, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Its taste however, was all too earthly: the cheese too salty, the topping too acidic, the vegetables too insubstantial to add either texture or flavour. And for all its airy fragility, the layer of crème fraîche made it unexpectedly cloying.

I can’t say I liked it much, but perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. Perhaps it was the restaurant’s way of telling me to man up and get my thrapples round some proper red meat (my omnivore companions highly praised their servings). But even if I didn’t like it, I sure as hell can’t blame the French. Le Bistrot Pierre did everything in its power to assure me that none of it was their idea.

Le Bistrot Pierre, 28 Park Street, Leamington Spa, CV32 4QN (and other locations). Two course lunch menu £10.95