Lord knows that I'm not a vegetarian, though I'm not averse to the odd meat-free day. But when it comes to eating out, vegetarians generally get a pretty raw deal, with one to no options in most cases.
This vexes me particularly as I'd been tasked with organised our works Christmas lunch, which turned into a New Year lunch, which turned into a Chinese New Year lunch, and two of our party are strict vegetarians (rather than wishy-washy "I am a veggie, though I do eat fish" types). For once I want us to go somewhere where they'll be able to choose anything off the menu rather than be stuck with the one pappy risotto.
Vanilla Black seems an obvious candidate, but to be honest is too close to our office for comfort. In the end, someone suggests Zilli Green in the heart of Soho, a new vegetarian restaurant from Aldo Zilli (on the site of Signor Zilli), which is opening just this week. Perfect, I think and so I book.
It's tipping it down when we get there, but we see Signor Zilli himself on the steps chatting to a girl before going inside.
The nine of us shake off the rain and walk through the door, where he greets us all briskly and tells us to "follow our noses" to the room downstairs.
There's a long wooden trestle table laid out for us in a surprisingly small basement, and we're sandwiched between the kitchen and the loos. Half of us are on chairs, the other half on a bench. I already feel a twinge in my back.
As we sit down, we see Signor Zilli appear again and personally serve a neighbouring table with aplomb. I explain to my colleagues that he's the Zilli of Zilli Green and one of them asks me why he isn't dressed in whites. I say "A lot of celebrity chefs haven't seen a kitchen in years" and she grumbles and says he ought to be wearing a toque at least.
There are bottles of olive oil on the table, apparently made on Aldo Zilli's own estate. No bread appears for dipping however, and one of my colleagues asks jokingly if we're meant to drink it.
What we do drink is the fresh juice of the day, which happens to be apple and strawberry. It's obviously blended to order and incredibly delicious, but at £4 a pop, so it should be (bear in mind that the food is at Wagamama prices).
As for the food menu - it's attractive even for a meat freak like me, so it's no wonder my veggie colleagues are bubbly with anticipation - for the first time in a long time they're stricken with choice paralysis.
For starters, we plump for Quinoa & Wild Mushroom Mediterranean Sushi Roll, Goat's Cheese & Jerusalem Artichoke Tart, Rustic Minestrone with Pastina and Marinated Tofu & Asian Salad. I resist the urge to tell everyone it's pronounced "keen-wa" - I'd only get withering looks. Some Organic Bread & Extra Virgin Zilli Oil is also requested; the name of the latter amuses and squicks me out in equal measure.
Reassuringly it turns out the EVZO is just EVOO, in fact a smaller version of the bottles that already adorn on our table. It's lovely though - strong and grassy with a punch.
Everything else also arrives promptly. The hearty-looking minestrone is "good and generous", although its recipient is slightly surprised by the lack of tomatoes.
The sushi rolls really aren't sushi rolls - although rice is swapped for quinoa, I'm at least expecting some nori, but instead the Andean grains are bound with aubergine and courgette strips. Laughably, the loosely packed assembly comes with disposable chopsticks; wisely, my colleague uses her knife and fork. No complaints flavourwise, however.
I have never liked marinated tofu, but pure masochism prompts me to order it. However, when it arrives it smells rather appealing and the seared crust breaks satisfyingly.
I'm pleased to discover that it's actually flavoursome, well-spiced with a touch of sweetness. The accompanying bed of Asian coleslaw provides nice crunch and balance to the softness of the tofu.
The tart looks delicious, but I shy away as Jerusalem artichoke and goat's cheese are no friends of mine.
The colleague who ordered it approves though and polishes it off.
Meanwhile, kitchen staff are rushing to and fro past our table - at one point a chef dashes past us with a huge exploded can of tomatoes. We try not to smile.
Mains next - we order Spinach & Mozzarella Souffle, Aubergine Milanese & Spaghetti Arrabbiata, Leek & Almond Ravioli with Artichoke Sauce, and Black Truffle Lasagne.
I'm rather sad to find that the Cheese Burger with Chips & Salad featured on the online menu is missing - I was hoping someone would order it and it would turn out to be a slab of cheese in a bun.
In fact there aren't any chips at all on the menu, save something called Artichoke Chips with Harissa. So we order those too, along with Rosemary Roast Potatoes and Roman Caesar Salad & Grilled Halloumi.
The waiter clears away everyone's used cutlery save mine. I pout a little at this and as I fret I suddenly notice that Queen's "Thank God It's Christmas" is playing in the background. I mention this in the waiter's presence and he says with embarrassment "Oh, it's because it's an iPod on shuffle - I'm very sorry". We say "It's okay, this was meant to be a Christmas lunch" but it's still a tad weird.
He returns and puts down fresh cutlery for everyone, except me - he just takes my old knife and fork and puts them either side of my place setting. I pout some more and consider complaining and then worry about my carbon footprint and decide I can cope.
Oddly, the side dishes arrive first. Artichoke chips is a complete misnomer as these are much more delicate than that name would suggest. They're lightly battered and fried like tempura, and are the most delicious thing I eat all day.
The "harissa" dip I could do without, as it just reminds me of eating dodgy merguez at Rock En Seine.
The rosemary potatoes are flabby but more-ish, but the salad no more than functional with flavourless squeaky halloumi.
The leek and almond ravioli is a winner - deftly made pasta with a deep, savoury filling and intense artichokey sauce (yes, I pinched some).
The portion may seem a mite stingy, but the flavours are rich enough to compensate.
The souffle is apparently tasty, and seems accurately risen and fluffy.
It's such a dreadfully sludgey shade of green though, I daren't even ask for a bit.
My own truffle lasagne is fantastic - like a decadent macaroni cheese. The truffle may not be visible, but its heady flavour and aroma punctuates every bite.
As for the spaghetti, the pasta is the perfect texture and the sauce has clearly been made with flavoursome, ripe tomatoes. The aubergine just makes me snigger though, as they look just like chip-shop fishcakes.
In the background, the playlist has moved onto Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits, interspersed with the odd bit of Coldplay. I briefly wonder whose iPod it is and whether I can smash it.
A colleague pops to the loo and comes back looking rather hunched. I ask what's the matter, so she says "See for yourself" and I find myself in a Hobbit hole with a curved ceiling almost grazing my head - and I'm only 5' 4". Even less conducive to a peaceful bio break is the sign on the door entreating me to "learn to cook with celebrated Chef Aldo Zilli".
Dessert seems essential and so we ask for the menu. We peruse the intriguing offerings, but when we're ready to order, there's no-one to be found.
We make small talk and wait for a bit, before a colleague asks "What's happened to our service?" A member of staff appears, but he's wearing his coat and clearly about to leave. This is not good.
Finally our waiter returns, and we order Dairy Free Tiramisu, Organic Tofu & Limoncello Cheese Cake and Warm Pecan & Chocolate Chip Brownie - all listed as vegan.
When they arrive, I'm taken aback by how authentic my cheesecake is and I urge everyone to try some. The base is strangely coconutty but I quite like that and, although any limoncello is overpowered by the sharp berry sauce, it's still seems a sound interpretation. After a while however, maybe it's psychological but the intrinsic, spooky tofu-ness begins to creep through and I struggle to finish.
The chocolate brownie is a little too dry, but rich and cocoa-ey, and the "ice cream" is pleasantly velvety.
As a whole, the dish works well together and I suffer a bit of plate envy.
The tiramisu is the least convincing of the three desserts and is extremely unlikely to pick anyone up.
Stodgy and airless like a kept trifle, it appears dairy-free is definitely not the way forward in this case.
As I'm poking at my tofu cheesecake, a colleague at the end of table suddenly asks "Why has my coat been on a journey?".
I look up and see him looking reproachfully at a member of staff who is holding said coat. The man blushes and says "We have a system for storing belongings and your coat was assigned to the wrong table". Actually, we'd hung our own coats up and it's not really surprising that we hadn't noticed the hand-numbered sticky labels:
By the end of the meal, I'm well and truly stuffed, and despite some issues, I'm pretty much won over. And although I think the more carnivorous of my colleagues feel a little shortchanged, the vegetarians at least seem as satisfied as I am.
As we walk away, they tell me that they really do like the place and that they'll definitely come back, but only with other vegetarians, and I protest and say to them that they can count me in too.
41 Dean Street
London W1D 4PY
020 7734 3924
I must admit that I wasn't expecting such a positive review. Shame on me.
My sister is a vegetarian and has had more 'token' omelettes than we can remember. I think she would like this place very much.
@aforkfulofspaghetti - It's hard not to be cynical - I was fully prepared to dislike it but enjoyed it despite myself.
@Fat Les - I bet you'll hate it ;p Any issues we experienced I think were teething problems - it's quality food at caff prices.
@tehbus - I do want to try Saf despite the weird "we do not heat our food above 60 degrees" faff
@The Ample Cook - No, you're right to be wary but I do hope your sister will like it as much as my colleagues.
Yes, it's such a rarity to see vegetarians overwhelmed by choice. My friends were thrown by the "(v)"s until they saw that that meant vegan this time.
I really like trying out veggie places, it's usually really interesting to see what they're doing, I really like Saf much to my surprise, thought Vanilla Black sucked quite badly, very up its own bum. Got my eye on that vegan Japanese place by King's Cross as well as this one ;)
If you're ever looking for other options there's a vegetarian restaurant called 'Rootmaster' in a converted Routemaster bus in the Old Truman Brewery at Spitalfields. Not cheap but good fun.
@Jones - I walk past Vanilla Black all the time and it's always empty - you can practically see the tumbleweed.
As for being quick off the mark, it's the Twitterverse I have to thank for sending me there.
Yes, I want to try Itadaki Zen too and Saf has been on my list for a while but I've heard mixed reviews.
Rootmaster does look fun :)
I want to go!
@Sati - I'd rather go to kushikatsu :)
Roti and I went there once after that. But its more fun if you go with lots of people...