Ask a group of chefs what words they dread hearing most and I can guarantee you that “we have a table with multiple and diverse dietary requirements” will make the top 5 every time. “Can I have the creamy pesto pasta, but with the lactose-free sauce on the side please, because I am low-carbing and have a mild nut intolerance?”. And “I want the burger and chips, but I want to substitute a lentil patty for the beef; giant Portobello mushrooms for the buns; and kale instead of the lettuce garnish.” Or “I am trying out a vegan version of the Paleo diet – what do you suggest?”. It’s enough to strike fear into the heart of any chef. Maybe this is the reason why restaurants catering to special diets have generally had a bad rap – the assumption is that paring down what you serve to exclude certain food groups will leave you with only insipid culinary dregs, devoid of deliciousness. But that assumption does not take into consideration a restaurant like The Gate.
Many moons ago when I first arrived in London, I worked briefly in Hammersmith. It was a ridiculously long commute but the job was fun and my colleagues were great – and it was one of them who introduced me to The Gate. Tucked in behind the Hammersmith Apollo in the shadow of the rather unlovely Hammersmith flyover, it amazed me with its fresh, airy space and truly inspired vegetarian food. Owners Adrian and Michael Daniel’s menu relied heavily on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ingredients and was made up of dishes based on childhood memories of their Indo-Iraqi Jewish heritage, with touches of contemporary French and Italian influences. But Hammersmith these days is just too far for me to venture for dinner, so I was thrilled to discover that a second outpost had opened in Islington near the Sadler’s Wells theatre in 2012, and they recently invited me to dinner to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary this year. The space in Islington is very different to that in Hammersmith but no less pleasant, with high ceilings and packed with original architectural features. The menu is pithy (about 6-8 starters and an equal number or mains) but both my guest Krista and I really struggled to make a choice – I would happily have eaten everything on the menu!
But in the end, choices had to be made, and Krista started with the roasted pumpkin, dolcelatte and crispy sage tart (£6.00), while I could not resist the tempura courgette flower filled with sweet potato, goat’s cheese & pine nuts on puy lentil salad with garlic & lemon aioli (£8.00). In an unexpected turn of events, both of us were at once smug in our choice and suffering menu envy! Krista’s tart was moist and packed with flavour (who can resist crispy sage??); while mine was a textbook example of what a tempura courgette flower should be – light and crispy without being oily and contrasting perfectly with the creamy, cheesy filling. I also loved the nutty texture that the lentils and pine nuts added. So a huge success on the starter front.
The choice of main courses proved no easier in terms of making a choice – and to complicate things, there were some mushroom-themed menu specials when we visited. In the end though we both ordered off the main menu. Krista chose the butternut squash rotolo – roasted butternut, goat’s cheese and basil in baked thyme-infused rolled strip of potato, served with tomato & caper salsa and a lemon butter sauce (£13,00). This definitely won the beauty prize: the vegetables were all neatly rolled up and topped with a nest of crispy wafer-thin deep-fried butternut ribbons and resting in a moat of sauce studded with tomatoes and capers. Krista pronounced it delicious and guarded it jealously! I could not resist the autumnal lure of sautéed wild mushrooms (girolles, king oysters & Paris browns) served on pan-fried risotto cake with creamy cep sauce, rocket, cheese shavings and a lemon truffle dressing (£15,00). I loved this so much, I ate slower and slower as I did not want the dish to finish. The mushrooms were full of robust, earthy flavours and meaty texture and because the risotto cake had been pan-fried, it had a delectable crispy crust – inspired! The rocket and the lemony dressing added a note of freshness while the cep sauce was pure indulgence. All in all, one of the nicest meat-free dishes I have ever had. On the side, we could not resist the sautéed kale (£4.00) which came in a generous portion and was tender and delicious (rather than tough and challenging, as it can often be); and the herby polenta chips with garlic aioli (£4.00) which were outstanding – crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside.
In the interests of research (!) we had a look at the dessert menu and unsurprisingly we found a few things on there that we liked… Krista opted for the lemongrass, lime leaf and coconut cheesecake (£6.00) while I tried a slice of the pressed chocolate and stem ginger torte (£6.00). Both were excellent – Krista’s cheesecake was prettily served with redcurrants and lime zest, and the fresh citrus flavours balanced out the sweet flavours of the cake. My chocolate torte was utterly, utterly decadent with the denseness that can only come from being either flourless or very nearly flourless. The ginger flavour came through well and the pretty spun sugar that garnished it made for a pretty plate.
The menu (which changes regularly and is always seasonal) indicates which dishes are vegan or gluten-free; or which dishes can be made vegan or gluten-free on request – a bonus for those on restricted diets. The wine list was succinct and resolutely Old World – I counted only 4 New World wines on the entire list – but filled with more adventurous choices than the standard Pinot Grigio/Sauv Blanc/Merlot safe options. I was also impressed by the democratic pricing (nothing but the Champagne was much over £30) and the fact that all the wines are available by glass, 500mlo carafe, or 750ml bottle. Service was knowledgeable and personable and the atmosphere throughout the evening was relaxed. It’s a great place to grab a bite before or after a show at Sadler’s Wells theatre but also good enough to justify a trip up St John Street purely for some of the most impressive vegetarian London cuisine that London has to offer. Here’s to the next 25 years!
For another perspective, here is my friend Helen’s review of The Gate Hammersmith.
Cost per head incl. 3 courses, a bottle of wine, coffee & tip: £60
Nearest Tube station: Angel
The Gate (Islington)
370 St John St
Tel. +44 (0)20 7278 5483
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of The Gate but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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