In a transparent attempt to cash in on allergics, coeliacs, vegans, clean-eaters, free-from-ers and food-group excluders of whatever medical or personal history, I’ve noticed that many chains have started including a super-healthy salad option on the menu. My local Ember Inn has a ‘Naked House Salad’ of seasoned green lentils, soya beans and seeds. The Red Cow at Leicester Forest East (Vintage Inns) has ‘quinoa and edamame bean salad with roasted beetroot, butternut squash, soya roasted seeds and pineapple dressing’.
Established in the 1650s, The Red Cow is a survivor that must have seen a few food fads come and go. These days its thatched roof looks a little lost amongst the sprawl of modern housing that engulfs it. Because despite boasting a name suggestive of dabbles with the dark side and latent threat, twenty-first century Leicester Forest East is actually just a bland roll-out of the city’s western fringes. It’s probably best known for its motorway services.
Inside the pub we find standard anodyne décor – large, light dining area, unpretentious magnolia walls with some bare brick, red-and-white tied back curtains and a mixture of chairs and plush banquette seating. Service is prompt and cheerful, and although the place is busy, it’s also relaxed; once we’ve finished our meal, we sit around the table chatting with no pressure to vacate.
My salad, when it arrives, is disappointing; it looks like a massive plate of chopped up gem lettuce – which is interesting, because lettuce wasn’t even mentioned in the description. A sparse few butternut and beetroot cubes ride uncomfortably atop this mountain like nervous tourists on a huge green elephant.
Burrowing underneath, I find something the texture of wet bird seed, made of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, quinoa, edamame, tiny sliced grapes and itsy-bitsy squares of red pepper. Also present are intriguing shards of rice – they look raw and do indeed retain a brittle texture. Sounds unpleasant? Under normal circumstances possibly yes – but here, they’re the nearest thing the dish has to a saviour: they give the non-lettuce elements some much-needed backbone, and shepherd them away from lapsing into sogginess.
From then on however, it’s all downhill: holding everything together is a bullying vinegar-based dressing that while it doesn’t completely overwhelm the dish, certainly overwhelms the poor ineffective squirt of pineapple sent in to tone it down and inject some complexity. It never stood a chance.
All of which is a pity, because what this dish is crying out for is a dimension of sweetness to off-set the combined effects of acid vinegar and bitter lettuce. It’s not supplied by the roasted vegetables (which only add to the bitterness by being not caramelised but burnt – yes burnt); nor by the insipid grapes; nor by the undetectable pineapple. Only the sunflower seeds add a welcome note of nuttiness – but it’s way too fleeting.
I also think it’s legitimate to ask how Vintage Inns can justify charging £9.50 for a plate of food that’s eighty-five per cent lettuce. Lettuce, let’s face it, is not a high-end vegetable. Even a finest Duchy Organic Little Gem lettisuccio from Waitrose retails at a hardly-princely 80p a pop. It didn’t even come with bread. Less than three hours later, I was hungry again.
OK, OK…so for an extra three quid, I could have splurged on a piece of chargrilled halloumi; but that would have taken the bill to £12.50. For a mere £8.95, an omnivore could have had ‘chargrilled chicken breast and kapia pepper on baby potatoes with a basil dressing’.
I’m guessing Vintage Inns don’t shift many of these salads; but even so, considering what you get for your money, it’s hard not to wonder if vegetarian diners aren’t simply subsidising meat-eaters. My superfluity of lettuce might have tasted bitter. But not, my friends, as bitter as that.
The Red Cow, Hinckley Road, Leicester Forest East LE3 3PG. Quinoa and Edamame Bean Salad, £9.50