By the time you read this, the Tennerfest will have been serving up cut-price menus for over a month, and with any luck I’ll be ready to explode like Mr Creosote, Monty Python’s overweight glutton and patron saint of people who really wish they had room for both the cheese board and a dessert.
I eat a lot at the best of times, but I find the Tennerfest period especially tempting to my stomach, not just because bargains are to be had at the four or five places where the menu really is only a tenner, but to test how well our local chefs are able to cater to my special dietary needs as a dedicated tofu botherer. I don’t eat meat, fish or people – and apart from a brief period spent devouring the pink-dyed contents of cinema hotdogs and overdone bacon baps whilst I was at school, I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life. It hasn’t always been easy finding a decent meal in local restaurants and I’ve eaten a lot of mediocre salads over the years, but one look at my fat belly will tell you that things have changed, and I’m obviously finding plenty of things to devour on local menus.
I hope you like risotto
Tennerfest shines as an opportunity to try out new places and pump some much-needed cash into the local economy, but vegetarians are often faced with the task of scanning the menus in advance, first to check that the venue even offers a vegetarian option, and then to make sure that it isn’t something we’ve already eaten the last three times we went out. I love goat’s cheese and beetroot like a seagull loves discarded chips, but there’s no way I’ll settle for eating them for dinner every time I leave the house. The same goes for caramelised onion tart, cream of tomato soup or any curry that the chef’s just made from a jar.
It doesn’t help that vegetarians are considered fussy by default, so the options available to us aren’t always the greatest example of the chef stretching either his talents or our tastebuds. You can often end up with traditionally meaty dishes with the meat taken out, or dairy-heavy carbohydrate feasts such as gnocchi or risotto. This doesn’t especially bother me, as that’s what I eat for dinner most nights and in the hands of a talented chef either of those approaches can be fantastic. However, it really catches my attention when I can tell that the kitchen has tried to provide me with something that’s every bit as flavoursome and substantial as the flesh that my dining companions are enjoying.
There are plenty of places in Jersey that really do make the effort for their vegetarian menus, with results that can be measured on my steadily-expanding waistline, and I firmly believe that any restaurant that goes out of its way to cater to special diets is the sort of place that is probably putting in more care and attention to the carnivorous section of their menu too. This might just be a ploy to steer my dining companions towards places that suit my own needs, but it’s worked out pretty well so far for both me and any dining companions that aren’t necessarily happy to live on a diet of lentils and Quorn.
Marvellous meat-free menus
The secret to great vegetarian cooking isn’t really that different to meat or fish based dishes – it certainly isn’t about taking beef out of a bolognese or trying to concoct a fish-free bouillabaisse. Good cooking has the same rules whatever you put in the pot, it comes from basing dishes around the unique properties of fresh ingredients and showcasing subtle combinations of flavours. This might explain why the obvious sources for vegetarian inspiration are the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Asia and North Africa, which are historically rich in meat-free dishes and make a strong argument that vegetables and pulses can be the centrepiece of dishes that are as delicious as they are satisfying. However, even many vegetarians don’t like spicy food, so it’s encouraging that plenty of chefs have shown that you can create sumptuous vegetarian mains from the traditionally-meaty tradition of classic European cooking. Wild mushrooms, cheese and even the much-maligned tofu have everything you need to carry a dish, and where would we be without the current fashionable vegetarian ingredient, the marvellous, squeaky halloumi?
I don’t go out to dinner just to load up on protein or carbohydrates, I pay to experience the imagination of a chef and to eat things that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. I’m perfectly capable of making a vegetable lasagne, and can do baked mushrooms with my eyes closed, but show me a new way with pumpkin or the inventive use of an artichoke and I’ll be telling people about it for weeks afterwards.
Great local vegetarian food
Sadly, neither my budget not my waistline have stretched to trying out every single vegetarian option on offer over the last month, but I’ve done my best to selflessly gorge myself in order to bring you this piece. My arteries might not agree, but it’s been a pleasure to experience the range of mouth-watering vegetarian food on offer across the island, and I hope that a few adventurous diners have realised that a meal can be satisfying without revolving around meat.
If any one restaurant must be singled out for praise, it has to be Ocean at the Atlantic hotel, where chef Mark Jordan has shown that he can create vegetarian flavours that are every bit as rich and complex as his award-winning meat and fish dishes. The Tennerfest menu is excellent as always, but the range of meat-free dishes on the pricier à la carte menu is unmissable for any vegetarian who loves fine dining.
Of course, Ocean is seeing some strong competition from St Aubins, where Danny’s, Cheffins and The Salty Dog have all outdone themselves with bright, bold vegetarian options that will no doubt draw me back throughout the winter, and I plan to eat at Sirocco in town as often as I can afford it. Also in St Helier, I can’t get enough of the fresh pasta at La Cantina, outstanding vegetarian Chinese dishes at The Mandarin Room and will always recommend The Green Olive for informal dining and the best quick meal you can get before a movie. If you’re out East, you can’t go wrong with the Castle Green, Feast and The Navigator, and if you don’t want a sit-down meal there’s always The Hungry Man and its beloved range of meat-free beach food.
I’m sure there’s plenty of great places I’ve yet to try, but give me a few days to sleep off my indigestion (and what feels like a new gallstone) and I’ll be back out there, gulping down crème brulée with the best of them. Waiter? Mine’s the goat’s cheese and beetroot risotto, you can keep the caramelised onions to yourself.