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


Willow Vegetarian Restaurant, Totnes

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