Its the day before payday and I'm trying not to get dangerously close to my overdraft; my dining companion likes food but, being a proud new father, he is being careful with his money, too. We're in central London and we're looking for something Oriental. We are on a budget but looking at the ornately decorated Thai Square restaurant on the Strand, we are both sorely tempted and can't resist walking in.
We are welcomed warmly. Noting that there are no vegetarian symbols against any of the menu items, I end up being the "fussy veggie" again. I attract the attention of our smiley and efficient Thai waitress and ask the dreaded questions :
- Do you have a vegetarian set menu? - ANSWER : Yes, we can modify the normal menu. Its about £16 a head for starter, maincourse and an accompaniment.
- Do the dishes listed in this "vegetarian" list contain nam-plah (fish sauce) or shrimp paste? Are the spring rolls / tempura etc fried in the same oil as the prawns and other meaty dishes? ANSWER : [Here I must praise the waitress for taking a moment to think and actually being honest ] Yes to both questions. However there are some stir-fries we can make without fish sauce. But that would mean you can't have a starter.
- Would you mind very much if we headed out without ordering: ANSWER [ And here I must laud them for their unflagging courtesy] No of course not; we're sorry we don't really cater to strict vegetarians. Most of our vegetarian dishes contain fish sauce / shrimp paste
So much for that.
And onto the main review - Walking out of Thai Square on the Strand, my friend and I head to a trusty favourite of mine. It's in the alternative-lifestyle heaven that's Old Compton Street. Even though it's mid-week and the credit crunch is biting hard, the bars and restaurants are buzzing !!!
VEG doesn't have any pretensions of catering to the fine-dining end of the market. Its an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet where the decor is in a slightly nicer-than-usual Chinese cafe-style.
The greeter at the door, shoos us in, has us seated, takes our drinks order and hands us plates within 3 minutes. We are seated right by the buffet. So its a quickly and deftly (careful, that elbow might nudge the next diner) executed move to start loading our plates with the vast quantities of mock-meat and other veggie delights on offer. Every single item on the buffet is suitable for vegetarians. We start with the mock-prawn crackers, the veggie dimsum , the veggie spring rolls and the mock-crispy duck pancakes. All cooked to an acceptable standard and definitely veggie in their composition. Encouraged by the thought of getting value for money (at £6.50 per head, it's not too hard), we dont hold back.
I must admit that I tend to pig out on spring rolls. I can't help myself when I see them. It' s the same with salted peanuts ; I always eat so many that I can't even bear to look at them for days after. And yet in a month's time, I'm offered peanuts and , there I go again - I just can't stop myself.
We slowly wend our way through the sweet and sour mock-chicken (passable), special fried rice (oily but ok), plain noodles (tastes like it was cooked in disinfectant) and head straight back for the dimsum and spring rolls. In the past, I, (and I note a few others have too), have always asked for plain white rice (not on the buffet but the waiting staff have very kindly obliged). This, I then drench in the spring onion and green ginger sauce and I kid you not, its my favourite concoction at the restaurant. To be fair, most of the other dips are good too. In addition, now, piling my plate with nice sweetcorn and other raw, thinly sliced vegetables that taste delicious, makes me feel like I've atoned somewhat for stuffing myself with all the deep fried spring rolls earlier.
Finally we roll our super-full selves to the dessert section and pile our fruit bowls high with chopped pineapple, thinly sliced oranges and chopped apple. Some of the fruit is in a sugary syrup. I assiduously avoid the syrup, but my friend gorges on it (he won't admit it, but he's got a really bad sweet tooth). With a soft drink each, our bill adds up to £8.25 a head.
We pay up and dawdle out. I pick up some tiny pastries from nearby Princi. It's a good late night stop-off point. At about half-way up Wardour St, it's very central, is open late and does fabulous bread (If you've been to Wagamama or Hakkasan, the name Alan Yau might ring a few bells; he's partnering some Italians on this venture).
The night draws to a close. Given the friendliness of the waiting staff at VEG, the prompt and effortless service (despite the fact that none of them really speaks very much English) and the fairly decent meal for under a tenner, I just cannot fault the place. It's certainly not high-falutin'; but if you're craving Oriental food but don't fancy the splayed ducks in Chinatown, are looking for somewhere properly veggie but find your pocket is not quite ready for the gourmet quality your tummy craves, then VEG is definitely a good, cheap and cheerful option.
The only slight downside - We are so stuffed and guilty about the excessive eating, we end up taking a long walk rather than the bus home. But that's a good thing, because we get some more time to chat, laugh and enjoy what true friendship is really about - enjoying the other person's idiosyncracies and liking them no matter what !
NOTE TO fellow fussy veggies : My experience is that most Thai restaurants seem to forget to mention the oyster sauce used in some stir fries and the shrimp paste and fish sauce used in red and green curries. Similarly, my personal experience has been that even the slightly bigger and nicer-looking restaurants in London's Chinatown don't really want to deal with veggies. So you may end up having to give these a wide berth if you are a serious veggie. This isn't just a random fussy whinge; hand-on-heart. I speak from bitter experience. The last time I visited a restaurant called Young Cheung in Chinatown (as part of the office meal out), I was given the sole option of the mixed vegetable fried rice. Finding little pink pieces in my dish, I asked the waiter what the pieces were. He replied - chopped garlic. Plausible, but the shape looked a bit strange and I was unconvinced. So when I found a bigger pink piece, I got one of my carnivore friends to try it. It was pork. When I checked again with the waiter, he said " Well, we chop our meat and veg on the same chopping board. So sometimes the pieces get mixed up"... So much for cross-contamination risks, eh?
VEG: 33, Old Compton St, London W1F 5JU. Just opposite Patisserie Valerie and a short walk from Charing Cross Road with its book and music shops :-)
P.S. They also run a Veggie course on Sundays where you can learn how to cook the stuff they serve at the restaurant.