Thirty years ago, Britain was a rotten place to be a foodie – and a worse place to be a vegetarian. Pub and restaurant food was generally unimaginative, overcooked and pre-prepared; the veggie option, where one existed, was always a frozen lasagne. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it all changed: the UK is now a nation of foodies, and – with almost every restaurant offering interesting, well-prepared non-meat dishes – probably the easiest country in the world to be a vegetarian.
In contrast, France is probably the very worst country for veggies; so when I was invited to a French-sounding restaurant, alarm bells rang. At the table, a menu listing only snails, oysters, eels, fois gras, and other very French fleshes brought back my teenage years. After a brief search, though, I identified a veggie main dish, plus a fish starter that wasn’t so Gallic as to scare me off; bravely ditching my principles, I opened with the ceviche of pollock.
First, we were offered a delicious selection of breads, and served a pumpkin and ginger mousse: incredibly light, it would have floated away in the mouth had it not been anchored by a scattering of crisped onions and sunflower seeds.
Then to the pollock, which hid under an arched roof of ‘apple lace’: a delicate, slightly sweet filigree that melted on the tongue. The pollock itself was mild and tender, served raw and stained green in its citrus marinade; it didn’t bowl me over, but chef did score with his rye bread crumbs and dollops of cream flavoured with mustardy mizuna leaves. Meanwhile, my companions enjoyed a “very unusual” lasagne made with suckling pig and borlotti beans.
Next up was a sauté of baby artichokes and onions: served crispy and flavoursome, they worked well with the parsley oil and fennel & ginger purée. “It looks like a forest,” was one comment; if so, it was a fragrant, continental woodland during autumn, with a whiff of natural herbs and bonfire smoke drifting in the hazy air. Here, my companions divided: the pan-fried cod with pickled cauliflower was pronounced “succulent, excellent”; while the pink haunch of Sika deer came with red onion marmalade and celeriac purée to jazz things up.
Offered a desert, I plumped for an apple pudding, set amidst a long scatter of raisins, prunes, toasted nuts, and curious tonka bean ice cream. And then we were away, utterly satisfied by our meal – if a little confused about some of the ingredients. Off back to the office, back to the internet, and back to three minor revelations.
One: the restaurant’s chef is the very non-French Andy McFadden. Two: L’Autre Pied has a Michelin star. And three: it offers a substantial range of vegetarian options, if you only ask.
I still don’t know whether dining has changed in France, but it’s been totally transformed here. As to my utterly unnecessary diversion from vegetarianism, there’s only one thing I can say: pollocks! ?