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The Curse of Goat’s Cheese

October 14, 2010

(Or, “How to eat out Cupboard Surprise Style Especially When You Don’t Eat Meat”)

Somewhere in the depths of the internet, years ago, I found a brilliant list of “Stupid Things People Say To Vegetarians”. “Stupid” might be a bit extreme, but it’s true there are some questions that do make me wat to roll my eyes a lot, and for which I feel I ought to have answers written on ready-prepared flash cards that I can just hand out to people when I first meet them. Favourites include: “What do you do for protein?”, “So what do you eat?” , “Do you eat fish? No. So that’s vegan right?”

(I’d actually like to nominate a friend’s ex-boyfriend for some kind of award in this category after he attributed my preference for fruit tea to me being vegetarian.)

Included somewhere eon that list was something along the lines of “I bet you don’t eat out much, do you?”, which is a question I don’t think falls into quite the same category as the others, because in my experience there are a lot of vegetarians who really don’t eat out much – maybe just because they like their own cooking (or own dining rooms) so much, that they don’t want to. Most of us, vegetarian, vegan or omnivore, object to paying through the nose to eat out when we feel we could’ve cooked something better ourselves at home – unfortunately, meat-free meals in restaurants tend to fall into this category more often than most.

A lot of otherwise fantastic chefs still don’t really know how to put together a vegetarian meal; it’s just not something many of them have been trained to do (I once had to introduce a trained chef, with ten years experience, to the concept of chickpeas). For years, restaurants have resorted to assembling a plate full of vegetables drenching them in a dodgy cheese sauce and calling it a “bake” , but I do think things are changing, I’ve had some fantastic meals out in recent years,  and I’m pleased to see chefs increasingly making use of pulses, beans, lentils, tofu etc, rather than doling out platefuls of cheesy liquid fat. Usually, whilst those around me tuck contendly into their steaks, I can still eat just as happily as them.

More often than not, it’s actually my omnivorous friends who tend to worry about whether they’ll be “anything for me to eat” (which is silly, because even a steakhouse you can get egg, chips and salad – it’s not like I’ll starve). When I visited Germany last year, I was warned in advance that I would struggle to find food – as it turns out, Bohemian East Berlin is home to some of the best, simple, and filling vegetarian cuisine I’ve eaten anywhere.

So where are the best places to go? I mean, obviously there are special “vegetarian restaurants”, but to be honest, nice as some of them are, I sometimes feel like I’ve been banished to some kind of meat-free ghetto. Plus I have friends who are committed meat-eaters and I don’t always want to get all moral on their asses and do them out of their flesh hit just for my sake.

Indian restaurants have always been great for veggies (I’m told many of Britain’s favourite Indian dishes are traditionally served with vegetables and beans, the addition of meat to the sauces came later), there’s always a massive choice of mains, starters and side dishes – I’m a big Taaka Daal fan (I’m told it’s like a normal Daal, but a little ‘otter …). Chinese and Japanese aren’t bad (if you think you don’t like tofu because it’s bland, order a bean curd in black bean sauce from a good Chinese restaurant and you may change your mind forever), and lots of Italian dishes are pretty much vegetarian by nature (although it’s difficult to go vegan on Italian admittedly – you can make an awesome vegan pesto at home though, recipe for that some time soon…)

General “British” restaurants still suffer a little from a goat’s cheese obsession. I don’t know what’s so wrong with cow’s cheese, but it’s always, always bleeding goat’s cheese. Which is weird, because goat’s cheese is very much a “love it or hate it” thing, so if you’re only going to offer one choice, it’s an odd one to go for. You may as well serve Marmite sandwiches. My Mum tells me she once went to a restaurant where both the starter, and the main course contained goat’s cheese – it’s amazing they didn’t find some way to work it into the dessert, raspberry goat’s cheesecake anyone? (Please people, never, ever, do that…)

I’ve slowly discovered ways around the goat’s cheese problem, where I still encounter it. It does involve making a bit of a nuisance of yourself, but like anything, you need to demonstrate demand in order to encourage supply. There are a few options that usually work, with varying degrees of waiter annoyance:

1, ask for whatever it is, but can they do it with normal cheese, or no cheese at all, instead of goat’s cheese.

2. If there’s a starter you like the look of, ask if you can hgave that, but as a main course size portion (obviously this works for meat-eaters too.)

3. If everything is cooked to order, they might be able to adapt one of the meat dishes. So if they do a bacon carbonara, maybe they can do a mushroom carbonara.

4. Construct a meal out of side dishes – a la the chips, peas and eggs at the steakhouse. It sounds crappy and makeshift, but sometimes it can be surprisingly satisfying.

5. Take a cupboard surprise approach! Just explain you’re not a goat’s cheese person and ask if they can knock something else up. You’ll probably get whatever they have approaching it’s use by date, but at least you’ll be helping to reduce their food waste. This trick could be a bit of an adventure whatever your food preferences – just seeing what the chef comes up with is a great test of restaurant quality!

And finally, of course….

My Favourite Places to Eat Out In Cardiff

(I certify these are all liked by me, and by at least one omnivorous friend, so although there’s obviously a veggie bias, I’d recommend them to everyone…)

The Canteen on Clifton Street

http://www.canteenoncliftonstreet.com

  Predominantly veggie menu, but always with one meat option. Really intimate (i.e. tiny, informal and cosy!), I had a lovely relaxed meal here – very simple food that’s just really well made and tasty.

Shot in the Dark

http://tinyurl.com/26w48wl

Bistro on City Road (my favourite area of Cardiff!) really nice to go just for a coffee and a cake, or a beer and live music in the evenings, but they also do brilliant food – the slices of pie or flan, served with generous salads, are always a good bet, there’s always a good soup, sandwiches and wraps, plus more substantial fare like lasagne or chilli. My favourite part is the photographs of local Cardiff celebrities on the walls (you know that guy that paints himself white and stands on a box in Queens Street? He’s there. So’s Ninja…)

Casanova’s

http://www.casanovaonlinestore.com/restaurant

I believe this is what food writers like to call a “hidden treasure” – it’s a tiny looking place tucked away on Quay Street by the slightly dodgy looking Model Inn. For a long time I didn’t get the point in going out for Italian food, seeing as I can do pretty good pasta and risotto myself – but the food in Casanova’s is pretty special – they change the menu quite regularly, so I can’t recommend anything in particular, but whatever you go for, the ingredients will be really fresh, the flavours and textures will be really well thought out, and the wine will also be gorgeous. They’ve also been very good in the past about adapting their meat dishes into veggie ones for me. When I first visited Cardiff I came to eat in Casanova’s by myself and got such lovely service that I didn’t really feel like I was eating alone at all.

The Vegetarian Food Studio

http://www.vegetarianfoodstudio.co.uk

In Grangetown. It’s in a bit of a weird place, you’d walk straight past it if you didn’t know it was there (well, actually, considering the area, possibly run past it being chased by a man with a knife), and it’s a bit out of the way, but this is probably Cardiff’s number 1 place to go for a cheap, authentic Asian lunch – you can get a massive filled pancake, you can get a five course meal and drink for under £7. Everything is vegetarian, but it’s so tasty and filling that I doubt most omnivores would even notice, much less care (a good sign for any Indian restaurant, is that Indian people actually eat there – this café passes that test with flying colours!). What I really love about this place is that they also do traditional sweets – something you don’t see much. (Also, if you’re a student, check out the special “tiffins” they do for £3.50)

Bar Sicilia

http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/bar-sicilia-cardiff

In Canton – looks like a standard greasy spoon (not sure why it’s called a “bar”), but this Italian run café is a great place for a really nice lunch. I used to go there sometimes when I worked on Cathedral Road, which is just round the corner. They all the standard fare – sandwiches, salads, filled jacket potatoes etc – but the ingredients and the care taken over them, are just that little bit nicer. You can also get more unusual stuff to takeaway for a work lunch in a little tray – slices of lasagne, stuffed peppers, and proper Italian style pizza (you know, with the nice bubbly, thin base)

The Spice Merchant

http://spicemerchantcardiff.co.uk/findus.html

My boyfriend and I often end up here when looking for somewhere to eat out

in the Bay. I love Indian food, but it often ends up expensive, once you’ve

ordered your rice, your main course, your naan, and all the side dishes you

fancy. And then the portions are too big so you end up either leaving half of it

or going home with a massive food baby. The Spice Merchant gets round that

by doing lovely set menus where you get sensible sized portions of two

dishes, plus your rice, all served on one plate. Lunch, with a drink and a naan

for two people costs under £20. The food here is actually a little different to

most Indians: the dishes have a zingy and quite light taste, not too oily, and

the ingredients are obviously pretty fresh – although big heavy Indian meals

are generally something I associate with evenings, the food here makes a

brilliant Sunday lunch, and if it’s sunny, you can even sit outside. You can also

feel smug, because it’s almost certainly a million times healthier than Harry

Ramsden’s across the road!

Coffee #1

http://www.coffee1.co.uk/

OK, so it’s not really an “eat out” place in the sense of the others (although

they do have some good paninis and sandwiches), but I can’t not mention

somewhere I spend so much of my time! (A fair few of these blog entries were

written there so it seems only fair to give credit). There are three Coffee #1s

in Cardiff (Wellfield Road, Albany Road, and next to Boots by Central Station),

all of them are favourite places.

Unlike Starbucks et al, they have an atmosphere that encourages one to

linger a little, as opposed to “pay up, drink up, get out”, the staff are always

super-friendly, there’s quotes from TS Eliot, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan all

over the walls, there are lots of nice comfy chairs (there’s even a chess board

in the one in town), and it’s generally just the best place in Cardiff to sit over a

few cups of coffee, to chat with friends, to work, to write, to read, or even to

have a business meeting – I’ve often happily spent the best part of a Sunday

afternoon trying all the different drinks, and sampling gorgeous

cakes. The coffee itself, is way tastier than from some of the bigger chains

(you can buy it to take home too) they are also very heavy on the fair-trade

principles, so it’s ethically quite sound as well. Particular recommendations

for the luxury hot chocolate, the caramel macchiato, and the lovely fruit

smoothies. And try a hazelnut and praline brownie while you’re there too. Yum

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