Picture from mildreds.co.uk.
I have some catching up to do. My year at Leiths finishes in only a couple of months and, with it, my year of London living. When I moved (for the week days at least) to the capital last September, I made those well-meant promises to London based friends that of course we would meet up because we’re so much closer now. One would think I had previously lived in Scotland, not a mere 35 minutes away, but I digress. The last term has rolled in and is rolling through with speed and I have been negligent of my Londoner friends that I made those promises to, so I have been trying my utmost to make Mates Dates before I move even further out and away to Somerset.
One of these friends is Philippa. I met Phil nearly a decade ago on a holiday in Costa Rica when I was still a very sulky and impatient sixteen year old and she was pretty much the same (with less of the melodrama). Originally from Devon, she now works as a publishing assistant and lives in Tooting. She is also a vegetarian. Those words aren’t quite as dirty to me now that I’ve grown up a bit and am not quite as much a bully as I was. When I’m back home in Guildford, I maybe cook meat only three times a week for dinner, fish on one other and vegtable based dishes for the last three. I would rather have less meat of a happier and higher quality and there’s nothing unlikeable about decent dashes of colourful greens and plump beans with a world of herbs and spices at ones disposal.
I had offered the option to her that we go out to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner one night, she responded with a list of The Evening Standard’s 10 Best Vegetarian Restaurants and asked me to pick one. I admit, my choice was made primarily by affordability and secondly by how easy it was to get to and whether I would know where it is (I have infamously become lost walking in a straight line before). Mildreds was based in Soho, not far from Hix Soho where I had done work experience over Christmas. I roughly knew where it would be, the prices seemed reasonable, why not? As for the ‘No Booking Policy’, something that usually makes me roll my eyes and declare that there is no point in even going; a naive little thought in my head said ‘how busy is an all vegetarian restaurant going to be on a Wednesday night?’
I‘ll warn you, it was busy. I hadn’t realised fully at the time but Mildred’s has been a vegetarian institution for as long as I have been on this Earth, opening in 1988 with a bright facade (whose colour has changed a few times over the years) with happy wonky lettering announcing itself and a fresh and honest menu. There is something that is incredibly hip about it. Maybe it’s a natural progression for a long-standing establishment catering to a specific audience. I don’t think I’ve ever been hip. I was an Industrial Goth more than a decade too late for the real Industrial Goths. In this hipness, there’s something quite off-putting to me and it remains off-putting to me. Not a place becoming popular, but a certain insincere pandering to a particular crowd. Whilst an establishment can’t really ultimately predict who they’re clientele might be and it makes sense to adapt to whoever the masses are that turns up, it doesn’t really do a lot to quell this stereotype of a vegetarian lifestyle as a political action taken by those that prefer to think of themselves as different, those tofu-squeezing, lentil quaffing, hemp clad types of numerous outdated cartoons. Of course the irony is that I will place bets that the majority of people in the bustling and busy premises that night were, like me, omnivorous and I think this says a lot about how far vegetarian food has come; it is now cool, not strange or faddy or picky or dirty to enjoy vegetarian food.
I hear tales that the primary inner dining space is large,albeit a bit on the cramped side, with a large glass skylight spreading outside light through until sunset. I would not know. Like I say, it was busy, we waited an hour squeezed by the small bar for table, eventually nabbing a few barstools with our beverages that looked back over the main street. When our turn came to be seated, the waiter recommended that we stayed where we were rather than edge into the more crowded main dining area. I was perfectly happy to; the people-watcher in me could not have been more delighted to be having a seat right up against a street facing window with a warm Spring air breeze drifting in.
The menu is short and appears to change fairly often. It isn’t a menu that makes a statement and, more and more, I’m enjoying an ‘honesty’ in food. I hear friends return from Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner waxing lyrical about the appearance of the food, not how it tasted – that became secondary, but how the legendary meatfruit looked. A Leiths acquaintance spent their holiday peeling peas as work experience, not shelling peas you understand, peeling peas. Things like this are not the reason I got into food; I’m not here to show people how clever I am or how pretty food can be, the amount of unnecessary waste from the idea of peeling peas makes me extremely uneasy. I know this approach will mean I will never have a Michelin star, but that is completely fine with me. I enjoy an honesty in food, I enjoy food that is not wasteful, I enjoy food that isn’t trying to be something other than it is or pretend it is greater that it is and the simplicity of Mildred’s menu was unexpected in a place full of bright young things in thick-rimmed hipster glasses drinking organic wine. It gives a lot of variety in a few short options. Their constantly changing burgers have seen plenty of acclaim, other online reviews fall over themselves trying to do justice to the mushroom and ale pie, sweet potato and cashew curry and the almost obligatory risotto and ravioli options are also there. In the end I opted for a flatbread and babaganoush starter and a black bean burrito for main whilst Phil preferred crispy polenta and a dinner of smoked tofu and apple sausages with kale and garlic mash. You can see from these options that these aren’t complicated or fiddly dishes, but there’s a good choice and it’s a choice that let the ingredient quality show through (or not in a less discerning establishments).
There was something about the hipster vibe I did enjoy and that was that with it came the importance of provenance The casually-dressed waiter with tattooed sleeves was perfectly clued up on where the ingredients came from and the specifics of what went into each dish. When the starters came, my two dips (one smoked babaganoush and one babaganoush with the addition of red pepper) had been sprinkled with a few crunchy sweet pomegranate seeds and a visible but not overpowering drizzle of chilli oil. A generous starter portion, they hadn’t been stingy and when their menu suggests that these starters could also be smaller or lighter meals, it is a fair suggestion. Phil’s polenta came with pesto, cherry tomatoes, olives and a lemon mascarpone. It was decadent and beautiful with some lovely flavours and texture balance. Texture balance may sound like a silly thing to comment on, but it so often seems to go amiss in vegetarian food or options and it is, most certainly, an important part of a dish.
I didn’t notice if service was slow to be honest, we were happy in our people-watching corner catching up on each other’s lives and in those situations, one is almost grateful for a little extra time. It certainly never occurred to me that we had waited too long for one part of the meal or for a drink but now I realise we spent an hour and a half at the table for two courses. The waiters didn’t seem overwhelmed and were happy to talk and joke and reassure despite the thorng of people waiting for seats even nearing ten in the evening.
I wish I could just give you a mistruth here, I wish I could say ‘the burrito was nice, but it would have been better if there was some meat in it’. Honestly? That burrito was one of the best burritos I’ve ever had. It shouldn’t have been at all – I’m a heat fiend and it’s heat was only moderate as best but the balance of flavour in the bean filling was extraordinary. The wrap was soft and light and unlike other Mexican style foods I have had, it wasn’t served under a mountain of cheese, just a gentle and adequate layer. It wasn’t presented overly fancy, the burrito lay next to its lettuce, sour cream and guacamole counterparts in a perfectly ordinary manner but everything about that dish, even though it goes against all of my preferences, was perfect. It was really, really lovely and far greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Phil’s sausages came with roast garlic mash and kale. Vegetarian sausages are never going to have the texture and juiciness of a meat sausage, they are an entirely different thing. Here these were intact, well coloured and well seasoned. The supposed smokiness of the tofu didn’t really come through, but the apple cut a necessary sweetness in it. Presentation is not one of Mildred’s qualities. I’m not going to dwell on it – there are only so many ways you can present a stir-fry or a sausage or a pie – but the initial appearance of the plates was not one to take the breath away, it was on the eating that the enjoyment was found and that, for me, is exactly as it should be.
We did not bend to have dessert. Not that either of us were averse to the idea of sticky toffee pudding or fruit crumble, but we were full. Completely full. Happily full. Not weighed down with food babies, but that contented fullness after just enough nice food. The bill was perfectly reasonable – we had filled ourselves on a large starter and a good main as well as a glass of the house white for just over twenty pounds each.
This is not somewhere to have a business meeting and the frustrating lack of booking reservations makes it entirely inappropriate for first date material. Your dad might have something to say about how casual the waiters look and a large group of you might have to book out their function room rather than cram into the dining area. But if you want perfectly decent food at a perfectly reasonable price that either gives you choice as a vegetarian or shows you how good it can be as an omnivore, if you want to catch up with a friend in a happy atmosphere and you can ignore a smudge of pretension, I would completely recommend it. A lot of their menu is also gluten/wheat free and the majority is vegan.
I hope Phil and I are still friends in another nine years and I wish Mildred’s well that it may still be open then. I would also hope to have won the lottery by then and have bought my own island and twelve cats but, I understand, the former sentence is a lot more likely and I’m perfectly happy with that.
45 Lexington Street