It’s funny but whenever I tell people that being vegan in France is a nightmare, everyone always nods understandingly – whether they are vegan or not, and whether or not they have spent much time in France.
Now I’m torn, because I was pretty much brought up in restaurants which lay the table with two sets of cutlery (at least) and give you menus without the price listings. I knew about square plates before you could get them in Ikea and I was being offered wine in restaurants before I’d even hit puberty. Though I may not always care, I like to think I know the difference between fine cuisine and overpriced gastropub pretence. I don’t mind being served expensive plates of not very much food, where the smallest drizzle of sauce is listed on the menu.
I do think French cuisine is something special, a cuisine which really demonstrates mastery of fresh, seasonal ingredients and which artfully balances textures, rich layers, and lighter notes. Which is possibly why it infuriates me that they just can’t get their heads around the whole vegan thing.
On Saturday night, for my dad’s birthday, we dined out at a family favourite of ours, A Vos Papilles. When we last ate there almost a year and a half ago, I was blown away by the effort they had put into my three-course vegan meal; I can’t remember it all, but I remember a fantastic woodsy earthy mushroom risotto, and some sort of warm caramelised fruit dessert served with sorbet. I was so impressed I believe I actually wrote them a thank you email!
The problem with setting the bar so high is that obviously it’s easier to miss the target the next time around.
Unlike the Dover Street restaurant, this time my vegan meal request had not been forgotten. They had even prepared a vegan amuse-bouche for me, a little skewer of marinated baby carrots and cherry tomatoes.Very tasty, and very cute, but it didn’t quite fit in with its non-vegan counterparts; little verrines of something rich and creamy. Now, I’m more than happy to snack on a few little vegetables before my meal, but if we’re talking nutrition, well, the old saying “comparing apples and oranges” doesn’t come close to explaining the disparity! My appetite well and truly whetted, I then tucked into an astoundingly good bread roll, crunchy yet spongy, yeasty and floury, whilst waiting for my starter.
The starter didn’t take too long to follow, and was pretty much exactly what I had expected; a beautifully colourful and fresh medley of raw vegetables, glammed up with some juicy sweet chunks of dried fruit, and decorated with an impressively red crispbread lattice.If it hadn’t been for the manager apologetically explaining that they were “a little stuck” as to what to make, I’d have been really very satisfied with this effort. This dish, although not the most wild of Saturday night extravagances, to me speaks of the French ability to showcase wholesome and varied ingredients. You could argue it was under-seasoned, a little balsamic vinegar or a more fragrant oil such as a walnut oil would not have been wasted, but I was more than happy to explore the variety of flavours and textures unadulterated, and save myself some calories in the process.
I’d also note that this is quite a large portion for this sort of restaurant, which makes sense to me nutritionally as fruit and vegetables are less calorie dense (and less expensive). Everything to suggest here that they were completely comfortable with preparing vegan dishes.
Which is why I was all the more surprised by the relative flop of a main.
As pretty as it looks, this was essentially just lentils, rice, potatoes, and spinach. The spinach was cooked with some little sultanas which was a nice touch – strange that although wilted spinach appeared on the three other plates at our table as a garnish, theirs did not contain the sultanas… It’s like they thought, “Hmm well these people can just choke down the plain spinach, but we’d better make it more interesting for the vegan”. Which is fine, but then why was the rest of the dish composed of an assortment of cheap starches?
I could forgive the macronutrient imbalance on the plate – if I wanted to follow a strict diet, I wouldn’t eat out (or eat 3 helpings of cake in the day…) – if it wasn’t that nothing was really seasoned. Rather than feeling ripped off, I just felt sorry for my dish, which clearly hadn’t been given much love and attention. The lentils were dry and mealy, the spinach, despite its generous accompaniment of sweet dried fruit and light scattering of pine nuts, was pretty much devoid of interest. The purple potato chips were fun but could have done with a little garlic or paprika or anything, really. The little rounds of rice were the best thing on the plate, tender and moist, and suspiciously tasty (did something non-vegan creep in there, perhaps?).
Nevertheless, I forced myself to remember my last experience, and enquired about dessert. Nobody else at the table was having dessert but if they’d prepared something for me, I was hardly going to turn it down! Unfortunately the reply was that “they had some fruit just in case” but nothing prepared. Thanks, but no thanks… I have cake waiting at home… and chocolate… oh, and if I want fruit, I have that too.
So I am still torn. On the one hand it is nice to see people rely on whole foods; fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables; grains; and dried fruit for a touch of exoticism and originality. I completely applaud that. It’s also the sort of thing that I wouldn’t ever bother making at home, as it would require using small amounts of a multitude of ingredients, which just isn’t viable if you’re cooking for one/on a budget/busy/lazy. But on the other, it seems to me that the French still haven’t quite understood how vegetables and other carbohydrates work. They need fats, they want protein, they crave spices and seasonings. They need a little bit more love and attention – they are just as important as cooking that cut of meat just right, pairing it with the right sauce, and serving it with the right garnish and wine.
Vegans, health fanatics, dieters, and French cooks all have a lot to learn from each other. When they start to work together, I predict beautiful things. In the meantime, at least you know dinner at a good French restaurant is totally compatible with your portion-controlled low calorie (high carb, low protein…) diet. That is, unless you go home and eat two slices of cake like I did.