I’m a carnivore. Born and bred, I used to take pride in the fact that I avoided vegetables at all costs, declaring that greens were “the food my food eats”. It wasn’t a devotion I stuck to blindly for the sake of being stubborn; rather, it was simply the fact that I’d never felt compelled enough to look over at a veggie dish and lick my lips with glee, anticipating the glorious deliciousness that was soon to follow.
But slowly, by varying degrees and a myriad of influential hippies ranging from Berkeley to London, I grew to at least trying out some vegetarian dishes, finding myself curious as to how someone could possibly come to terms without eating meat and still finding their food to be satisfying. And until recently, it was only a fledgling movement, something I tried out for novelty’s sake—until, of course, I made a trip down to Food for Friends in Brighton’s lanes.
Food for Friends prides itself on serving gourmet vegetarian fare, the kind that’s widely lauded as being good tasting AND good for you. With claims like that—backed up by the dedication to use the best ingredients possible, locally sourced and fresh—it was hard to persist in my defeatist attitude towards all thing green. So I sat down at my table trying to put myself into a “veggie happy” mood along with the world’s most adventurous foodie date, Arthur (the man who was once upset that he missed out on some tasty shark meat), anticipating what was to come.
I started off simply with a helping of ricotta, basil and dill dumplings over a red pepper and fennel puree. The dish was beautiful: they certainly had an eye for plating over here. With each little dumpling set onto the puree like giant, glistening drops of paint dripping down a canvas, I could hardly bear to touch it. Setting my reservations about destroying it aside, the dumplings were perfectly crisped and texturally pleasing, albeit a bit lacking in flavor. Eyeing Arthur’s salad, I tried the fresh smoked ricotta on his plate, which turned out to be incredible. Set alongside a tangy mustard dressing with pine nuts for crunch and dollops of fresh fig, it was a perfectly balanced dish, pitting the sensationally fresh cheese along with various textural elements set to a zesty, crisp vinaigrette.
Round one—I retain some of my apprehensions, but am overall pleased with faint glimmers of brilliance exuded by each dish.
Nothing, however, could prepare me for what was to come next. Feeling overwhelmed with the desire for some good old fashioned carbs, I ordered some gnocchi, wondering how this timeless classic would be interpreted in the hands of these happy go lucky veggie enthusiasts. Being of sound temperament, Arthur also ordered a pasta dish, a saffron open faced ravioli with butternut squash and asparagus. I sat there and waited, counting the moments until my heart would be filled with the rapture of that sweet siren song, carbohydrates and cheese, a pairing I believed to be directly sent to mortals by the Almighty himself.
With this divine image in mind, I took a bite into my gnocchi, noticing that the gnocchi to vegetable ratio was heavily in favor of the veg.
(The narrative breaks here if for only a moment to dramatize my rapturous bliss at this first little morsel of perfection).
It was so good it could have converted me to vegetarianism straight away. Served alongside a heaping of mushrooms cooked in a white wine sauce with fresh coriander, it was a symphony of perfection that I have rarely ever encountered in a dish. Sweet, earthy and cheesy, it was the kind of meal I could have imagined myself eating in Italy, casually lounging about a terrace with a glass of wine in hand. What especially astounded me was what I had been so initially apprehensive about—the ratio of mushrooms to gnocchi—had actually ended up working in the dish’s favor, preventing it from being excessively heavy and saturated like most gnocchi tends to turn out. I slurped up every last morsel, gingerly appreciating the outer crisp on the gnocchi against the soft, tender mushrooms.
Realizing I’d spent an indefinite amount of time rapturously enamored with my dish, I turned to Arthur’s pasta for a helping. The concept of the open faced ravioli was a little lost on me—the pasta seemed slightly disoriented in its pool of sauce, lacking in robustness—but was otherwise a good dish. With a little salty kick from the blue cheese, the sauce held up well to the perfumed saffron, adding a desperately needed crunch from some extra pine nuts along with the creamy spinach. It was a nice plate, if a little confused, but couldn’t hold a candle to my perfect gnocchi. Silly Arthur.
Dessert for me was a molten chocolate lava cake with salted caramel and a cardamom ice cream, while Arthur decided to opt for a “deconstructed” cheesecake. Slightly wary of the cardamom ice cream, I bravely plowed on through, thinking if anything I could finally wipe it off my bucket list (eat an exotic ice cream). And it did complement the cake perfectly, I’ll say that much: it was incredibly aromatic and sweet, playing up nicely against the slight bitterness of the chocolate. However, I felt it was a little too heavy on the cardamom, leaving my mouth with the faint taste of the spice for some time later. The deconstructed cheesecake, meanwhile, though slightly difficult to eat harmoniously, was decked out with gastronomical feats like a mint jelly and deep fried mint along a passion fruit sorbet. Like something straight out of a Heston Blumenthal restaurant, it too, was beautiful, though somewhat lacking in sweetness.
All in all, if the good people over at Food for Friends insist that in fact this is what vegetarian fare can be like, I may have to seriously reconsider my ravenous carnivore policy.