vegan

The Dark Horse, Moseley

I offer no apologies for the bias that comes with this post. It would be nigh on impossible for me to write about The Dark Horse without taking into account the many nights I’ve spent in the bar drinking endless of amounts of gin, or beer, or bourbon. It is the place at the bottom of the hill, the two minute six second stroll to the pub, or the four minute stagger home. It is the place where the night occasionally descends into fable, where impromptu limbo contents have been known to occur on a Tuesday night, bottles of overproof rum have been plonked on tables, or endless picklebacks have been drunk until I’ve gone home and mistaken my coat rack as a urinal. The Dark Horse is the place I go for a quiet drink on the way back from work, for the midweek open mic nights, or for a closing time dance on the weekend before half of the village comes back to mine. The good times happen here, that is the least you should know.

And yet I’ve never written about the food. Never really considered it, to be honest. Why should I. I’ve always considered what I do to be a study of a menu, not a post dragged out from a pizza I’ve eaten when I was pissed. Plus I like just being another local with a drink problem to the staff behind the bar instead of the bellend with a blog that I am elsewhere. But things have changed recently. They have a new head chef and the food is slowly taking a new direction; more focus on vegetables, a better understanding of fish; the smoker that was once central to the menu is now another gadget in the large open kitchen out back to be used only when required. The food is better than it ever has been, which I suppose is my job to tell you.

Take the truffle mac’n’cheese, so often a let down of overcooked pasta and gloopy béchamel. Here the pasta retains a little bite and the sauce is big on robust cheddar flavours. I can think of only one place that does a better version in Birmingham and I can’t walk there so in your face, suckers. Smoked salmon is wrapped around a salmon and beetroot mousse, before being encased in sheets of pasta and cut into cylinders. It comes on slick of beetroot puree and with a few sweet potato crisps. Yes, it is a bit cheffy, and no, I didn’t expect to see it on the menu (it’s still not on the online version…), but christ is it good. Balanced and delicate, it shows a new direction that happens to be far stronger than the old one.

When they do look to the smoker it’s still cooking of a high standard. The beef tacos are no longer cooked to a mush, now having enough texture to know it is animal you’re eating. The rest of it works; the tacos (likely shop purchased, but frankly who cares) the guac and the chilli. Same goes for the burrito; I dont like the flabby tortilla and I’ve told them as much, but I do like the control and the balance of the filling that never sits still in the mouth. In particular I like the rice that has a slight Persian feel to it and the grilled chicken which is more fragrant than spicy. That chicken returns for a salad that looks and tastes far too healthy to be within these four walls. Claire mutters something about walking down to eat this as a healthy dinner, which to me sounds like a great excuse for a pint.

I can tell you from watching the World Cup here that the pizza is decent, and from a recent work night out that the BBQ beans taste great on just about anything. I can tell you from a meal a few months ago that the Kansas city chicken would not be on my personal list of recommendations, but that even the most robust of meateaters will enjoy the vegan goodness of the Texas caviar salad, even if I still have absolutely no idea what Texas caviar is. I can tell you that that when you get there Karolina will be smiling from behind the bar and Ellis will be giving even the straightest men a stonker in their y-fronts. I can tell you that my mate Tom will be sat on the patio having a pint with just about anybody, and that should you see him you should buy him one for services towards Moseley. Most of all I can tell you that the food is a world away from what it once was and is well worthy of your time. I hear they also do a great Sunday roast, though I’m usually far too hungover to try that personally.

8/10

I once got an A2B home here. True Story.

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.

Greggs, The Battle of The Sausage Rolls.

The farce that has recently occurred over the Greggs vegan sausage roll is truly an accurate representation of where this country presently is. I half expected there to be a singular man outside the Kings Heath branch; bald-headed, with his Costa Del Sol burnt bonce protected by a cap. He would be assessing the customers joining the back of the queue, staring each down with his bulging, bloodshot eyes and occasionally screaming a muffled ‘SAUSAGE ROLL MEANS SAUSAGE ROLL’ through the Stone Island scarf that blocks out the bottom half of his face. He wasn’t there of course, though I admire the tenacity of anyone who can get so passionate over something so trivial. What a set of absolute lads.

My first and possibly only trip to this branch of Greggs is to try a sausage roll made of sausage, and another sausage roll containing no sausage. To see what the hysteria and twitter meltdown is about, and why the gammon of this country are getting so protective about a pork product. As a bit of background, this would be only my second and third Greggs rolls, the first being in late November of last year when a colleague dumped one on my desk. I don’t have much to go on.

The appearance difference is notable in that one is greasy, the other is not. The meat version secretes a fattiness that you wouldn’t want near a nice item of clothing, whilst the vegan version looked like the sausage roll that you forgot to egg-wash, which it is. They taste pretty much identical: of pig, which is both alarming and surprising. The Quorn version perhaps a fraction higher in black pepper, and with a more sturdy texture. I prefer the vegan version. Repeat. I prefer the vegan version.

Such is this feat of engineering from Greggs HQ, I am confident that you could serve the vegan version at a buffet and pass them off as the meat equivalent. But this is the bit I don’t get: Veganism is a movement that has animal welfare at its very core – I don’t understand why a vegan would want to eat something that tastes of cooked pork. I am a conscious meat eater; we eat less meat at home to ensure the animal we do has had the best life possibly, and I’ll eat every cut and organ out of respect. From this perspective the vegan roll appeals to me. I can’t imagine the pork in the meat version is free range for the price they charge, so the vegan is a success for replicating the taste without the slaughter. I’m talking myself into a vegan lifestyle here. I should stop this immediately.