Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a journalist based in State College, Pennsylvania, who writes about business, parenting, travel, and food. She has lived in Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom, Holland, and New Jersey.

Veg up a notch

A London restaurant’s cutting-edge vegetarian cuisine

November 30, 2010

Culinate editor’s note: We welcome Savita Iyer-Ahrestani to the Dinner Guest blog. Savita wrote recently about her parents’ experience trying to maintain a vegetarian diet in Geneva, in the 1960s; here she will blog about vegetarian food.

Although I always order a vegetarian meal when I fly, I am also always disappointed by what I get.

On a recent flight to Europe, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I uncovered the little aluminum-foil box that held my meal and found a small, hard mound of undercooked rice and a shriveled clump of straight-out-of-a-can boiled peas.

Why? We are in the year 2010, and vegetarianism is a well-established practice, one that went from marginal to mainstream a long time ago. Surely it’s possible to do better than rice and peas?

Of course it is. Yet vegetarians like my friend Michelle Fiorentino, a mother of two in Westfield, New Jersey, are sadly resigned to the fact that they’re not going to find anything particularly interesting when they eat out.

Of course, big cities like New York do offer a range of excellent and innovative vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but even so, Fiorentino says, eating out as a vegetarian, whether it be in a restaurant or at someone’s house, is often a big disappointment.

“I realize I’m very complacent and pretty much accept the fact that when I eat out, the food probably will be lousy,” she says.

In fact, just being vegetarian is still not particularly easy, despite the fact that the concept has been tried and tested for decades. Fiorentino — whose husband and children are also vegetarian — believes that many people are still not convinced that a vegetarian diet is sufficiently nutritious. And people whose diet is predominantly meat-based, she says, either don’t know how to make vegetarian food interesting or just don’t believe that it can be.

“It’s too bad, because vegetarian food really can be pretty great,” she says.

London’s Zilli Green.

That’s the message that award-winning chef and U.K. restaurateur Aldo Zilli is trying to get across. In February, Zilli, who’s founded a number of highly successful London restaurants, opened his latest venture: a vegetarian restaurant.

Zilli Green aims to reinforce the idea that vegetarian food, far from being bland and tasteless, is actually exciting and delicious, cutting-edge and creative, and brimming with flavorful and interesting combinations. The restaurant’s head chef is Enzo di Marino, one of the U.K.’s most exciting and talented up-and-coming vegetarian chefs; he trained in the Abruzzo region of Italy before working internationally, and has known Zilli for years.

Zilli says he launched Zilli Green as a testament to his personal efforts at embracing a healthier lifestyle. “I do cook meat because I am a chef, but my own lifestyle has changed and I want to take the idea of vegetarianism forward,” he says.

But despite the cachet that a name like Zilli carries, Zilli admits that both the idea of a wholly vegetarian restaurant (which, incidentally, is priced at a very affordable level, unlike many restaurants of its ilk) and the concept of vegetarianism itself are still hard sells. Zilli Green is supported by The Vegan Society and by celebrity vegetarian Paul McCartney, but it has yet to gain traction.

“It’s early days [for Zilli Green,] but the concept is still quite niche, and as far as the customers are concerned, we still need the ladies to bring the gents in,” he says. “For a lot of people, vegetarianism is still all about education.”

Many chefs also believe that preparing vegetarian food is too labor-intensive and time-consuming, which is why they stay away from it, Zilli says. “My vegetarian restaurant requires a few more chefs than my other restaurants, and it takes a lot more effort to keep the menu seasonal and interesting.”

Indeed, “seasonal” and “interesting” are key factors in running a successful vegetarian restaurant — one that can appeal not only to vegetarians, but to others as well, Zilli says. And ensuring that a menu remains seasonal and interesting requires a good deal of thought, planning, and effort — but it is an effort that he is prepared to put in and that he believes others should be able to do as well.

There’s little doubt that Zilli Green’s menu, which artfully combines vegetables with grains like quinoa and barley and emphasizes the importance of protein, would more than please vegetarians like myself and Michelle Fiorentino. Even those who are leery of vegetarian food would not turn up their noses at it.

But being a frequent flier, I’m more likely to get on a plane first than to eat at Zilli Green, and I actually do believe that airlines are capable of offering both interesting and tasty vegetarian meals to their passengers.

To that end, here’s what I would propose as a sample menu:

Zucchini Quesadillas
Beetroot Raita
Pear Tart

See? Not so difficult.

Related recipe: Beetroot Raita; recipe: Pear Tart; recipe: Zucchini Quesadillas

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