Vegetarians and haute cuisine have never quite seen eye to eye. All that boiling down of bones and medieval fattening techniques, not to mention the chicken stock controversy over Gordon Ramsay's artichoke soup, has hardly made for a relationship built on trust and respect.
However, all that seems to be improving. In France, Alain Passard embraced all things vegetable and in 2001 banished most meats from the menu at his Paris restaurant, Arpège. In London, even Ramsay provides a vegetarian choice at his flagship restaurant in Chelsea, while Marcus Wareing's P‚trus and Savoy Grill both have veggie menus, too.
Now Shane Osborn, head chef and co-proprietor of London's two-Michelin-starred Pied … Terre, is going one further. He's offering nothing less than a permanent vegetarian nine-course tasting menu.
"We've always tried to be aware of people with food requirements, especially since my own shellfish intolerance became more widely known," says the Australian-born chef. "Then my vegetarian friends said they felt they always got the bum deal when they dined out. I thought: ‘They pay the same price, why shouldn't they feel special too?'"
With three million people in the UK now claiming to be vegetarians, Pied … Terre's decision looks like a sound business move. The d‚gustation menu costs £50 per head, with the option of a half-glass of wine at every course, matched by co-owner and partner David Moore, for an extra £22. Impressive were the 2002 Muskat Ottonel Feiler-Artinger from Austria (with asparagus), and a perfectly balanced 2002 Coteaux du Layon St Lambert from Domaine Ogereau in the Loire Valley (with a fromage frais sorbet dessert).
For Osborn, the menu is also a chance to experiment more. He produces no fewer than four different vegetable stocks, or nages, at a time, including a fennel-based one and varieties centring on celeriac, carrot and chervil. This is obviously the two-Michelin-star approach, but Osborn insists: "Keep it simple."
Witness English asparagus (from Secrets Farm in Kent) with creamed morels and Parmesan foam. "Asparagus and Parmesan is a match made in heaven," says Osborn, who begins the dish with a celeriac nage to form the basis of the Parmesan velout‚ for the foam, and then uses more of the celeriac base as the root flavour of the creamed morels. The result is a balance between the delicate sweetness of the asparagus and the Parmesan flavour, with the morels to provide a bit of guts.
Yes, guts. Osborn is adamant that vegetables don't mean lack of flavour. "Obviously, we use a lot of mushrooms, cépes in season, and nuts, including things like hazelnut oil," he says. "But also think of strong flavours like parsnips with cumin. It's beautiful."
Well, the beets and root vegetables can wait for winter. In the meantime, as Osborn admits, "this [late spring/early summer] is a lovely time of year to be a veggie". Another course, the nage of spring vegetables, is scented with star anise and chervil, and features a baby turnip and carrot with one of Osborn's current favourite ingredients sprinkled over - baby wood sorrel picked on the Welsh mountains by supplier Mountain Foods. This dish is all about aromatic, citrussy flavours, snappy and spring-like on the palate.
Other dishes include an avocado ceviche (based on a scallop dish, but with the avocado's richness providing a sound substitute) and sautéd spätzle (an Alsatian and southern German speciality, like a wet pasta or dumpling, which Osborn makes with milk) served with a pine nut emulsion, new-season garlic and artichoke.
"We are currently getting around five covers out of 60 at dinner," says Osborn, which more than justifies the vegetarian menu. "And it is perfect for lunches. You don't go home bloated, as you would if you ate too much foie gras. Just satisfied."
A good way to enrich vegetable flavours is with alcohol. Madeira works well, or the combination of port and beetroot.
What's on the menu - Selection of canap‚s including salsify sticks; mushroom beignets; pumpkin and ginger soup; oven-roasted beetroot with baby onions; pickled cauliflower beignet; potato gnocchi with tomato fondue
Chilled gazpacho consomm‚ with aubergine caviar and frozen black olive oil
Selection of cheeses
Fromage frais sorbet, strawberry jus
Mango rice pudding, pineapple and mango sorbets