In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
In the notes we made after dining at The Dairy in Clapham, the word ‘rustic’ crops up about 15 times. The three-room venue has exposed brick walls, an open-view kitchen, wooden furniture, banquettes, stone floors and chalkboard that are standard-issue for Modern British restaurants. But there are also little knick-knacks and pictures that your granny would have loved – and the look is very much gastropub-meets-grandma’s front parlour circa 1970. There’s even an old-fashioned radiator with peeling paint, but we don’t know whether that’s a design feature or something the previous owners left behind.
British ingredients that are traditional yet trendy like buttermilk, whey and nettles arrive casually arranged on old-fashioned, mismatched china plates and stoneware bowls. As befits a restaurant that calls itself the Dairy, churns its own butter, grows its own vegetables and herbs in its rooftop garden, keeps its own bees and even has cloudy, unfiltered wine on its drinks list, it’s selling a rustic fantasy – and judging by the Twitter buzz, urban Londoners have been lapping it up. This buzz, which has been steadily building for more than a year since the restaurant opened, is what made it so hard for us to get a table – or indeed get hold of any staff on the phone at all, even to make enquiries. We were eventually assigned one with high chairs in the front room; though on the evening, somehow mercifully led to the more comfortable dining area in the middle.
Like many restaurants, The Dairy doesn’t advertise its vegetarian menu on its website (why, oh why?). You can choose a la carte – as we did – or opt for a seven-course tasting menu selected by head chef Robin Gill’s kitchen team. It’s perhaps a little unusual to start with a mouthful of unadorned carbs, but the amuse bouche of little roasted potatoes with breadcrumbs are delicious in their earthy simplicity. Warm, fresh malted sourdough comes in a small hessian sack, along with ‘vegetarian butter’ (there’s smoked bone marrow butter for omnivores) that has a nostalgic sour tang. We’re told it’s made by culturing Jersey cream, whipping the cultured cream, then splitting the buttermilk from the butter and serving them together.
Vegetables grown in the roof garden make an appearance in a dish of shaved carrots, beetroot, salad leaves, whipped goats cheese with buttermilk dressing and crunchy pieces of oat granola. Another item featuring smoked ricotta is paired with double-podded broad beans, nettles, watercress, garlic chives, chive blossoms and breadcrumbs. The flavours are intense and heightened: the goats cheese dish is sharp, tangy and citrusy; and the smokiness in the ricotta one is very pronounced. The vegetables’ verdant and vegetal flavours are amplified by being freshly picked: it’s as if they’ve been injected with the distilled essence of their own vegetable-ness. This is probably how greens used to taste when our parents were young.
Next, it’s about colour and texture. Butternut squash and cavolo nero, in delightfully contrasting hues, are paired with Brillat Savarin cheese and linseeds. The squash is blanched and then steeped in its own jus, which gives it a somewhat unusual leathery texture. The formula of this ingredient-led cooking seems to be vegetables/ cheese/ some crunchy bits; and, on the whole, it works. To finish, salted caramel, cacao and malted barley ice cream, if somewhat muted and monotone after all the big flavours that have preceded, is fine; but it’s beeswax custard – from the rooftop beehive – with Earl Grey tea and peaches that has more varied, subtle and complex flavours. With a bottle of wine between two plus service, our meal cost around £50 each.
The Dairy gets so much right that it feels almost churlish to flag up the one thing it does get wrong. At the start of the meal, our wonderfully friendly, smart and knowledgeable waitress asked if we had any food allergies or dietary requirements. She explained which of the dishes on the main menu could be adapted for meat-free diners; and throughout the meal, she made sure that we were fine with eating gluten, dairy, nuts and so on. Heck, the kitchen even bothers to make separate vegetarian butter! So in a restaurant that cares so much about their diners’ dietary needs, why is there a dish with Parmesan cheese on the vegetarian menu? We avoided it – because Parmesan, as chefs everywhere should note, is made with animal rennet. And yet it appears on veggie menus everywhere, and in hundreds of restaurant dishes marked with a ‘V’.
We would understand if it were an oversight or ignorance on part of the chef, but staff – who confirmed in an email that the other cheeses on their veggie menu are indeed vegetarian – gave a vague and confusing response about this one. They stated: “the chef is aware that Parmigiano Reggiano is… made with animal rennet. We try to offer cheeses that have great flavour and that work with the other elements on the particular dish. Saying that, we offer people a choice of non-animal rennet cheese if someone is not keen on what’s on offer.” So the message seems to be: yes, we know there’s a non-vegetarian item on our vegetarian menu, but the onus is on you, the diner, to ask for the veggie alternative. A discussion about this complex issue is beyond the scope of a restaurant review – but please, sort out the Parmesan debacle guys, as we really want to be able to recommend the restaurant to vegetarians.
The Dairy, 15 The Pavement, Clapham Old Town, SW4 0HY. Tel: 020 7622 4165
We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drinks and service.