Manna is truly heaven-sent for choosy vegetarians

Vegetarian restaurants haven t really caught on in the UK. It s true that vegetarians are generally better catered for than they once were, and have more choice here than in many European countries, but meat-free dining could still do with a makeover. Th

Vegetarian restaurants haven't really caught on in the UK. It's true that vegetarians are generally better catered for than they once were, and have more choice here than in many European countries, but meat-free dining could still do with a makeover.

The 1970s image remains of mushy lentils and lukewarm knit-your-own nut loaf served by grubby, long-haired hippies.

Even this paper's editor, Geoff Martin, a herbivore himself, was disparaging of a veggie meal he'd recently had in Bath - moaning that he'd paid more than £30 a head for what was essentially "just a plate of vegetables". He went on to say that in his experience, vegetarian restaurants "try too hard with what are essentially basic ingredients, leaving them unrecognisable".

It's justified criticism. A restaurant needs to make some effort to justify charging £13 or £14 for a plate of cheap-to-buy veggies - organic or otherwise. Stick a piece of dead flesh on there - even factory-farmed - and diners won't think twice about paying a two-figure sum for the dish. Nonetheless, vegetarian restaurants still have the same overheads as their carnivorous competitors.

Despite health scares over mercury-filled fish, mad cow disease and carcinogenic bacon, to name but a few, the public has been slow to embrace meat-free menus. Chains like Cranks never really cracked it. Locally, Eat and Two Veg does an OK job in Marylebone, but I wouldn't rush back. Despite my less happy experience, I'm told that Woodlands - the south Indian restaurant - on Hampstead's Heath Street and in Marylebone is popular.

Perhaps the longest surviving local player is Manna on Erskine Road. We'll both be 40 this year. I last ate there more than 15 years ago, when we were both a lot younger and I was still a vegetarian. It wasn't hugely impressive and I vaguely recall the cliche raffia and hemp interior. I hadn't been back.

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In 1995, our 27th year, the restaurant was taken over by two ex-customers who gave it a refit and general overhaul. Having heard good reports, I decided to invite Geoff to help me reassess. We met on a sunny Thursday afternoon. I was late, having struggled to find a working pay and display machine (please take note Camden Council) and Geoff was already in the sunny, street-facing conservatory, sipping tonic water. We were the only diners.

Manna is a whole lot different than when I last visited. Dark brown laminated tables, with pale wood chairs and walls clad in a tasteful cream and black mural of tree and bird silhouettes - all a bit upmarket and no raffia to be seen.

The lunchtime menu's brief and to the point - three starters, two salads, four main courses and some side orders. Some of the dishes are marked as vegan, organic or gluten free.

Geoff went for the manna mezze, a selection of three starters or salads priced at a hefty £17. The main courses on offer included an organic breakfast, which included vegan sausages and, a step too far for me, scrambled tofu. There was a huge (interesting sounding) salad, involving most of the ingredients the chef would have been able to lay his hands on, a fairly uneventful sounding organic pasta of the day and, my choice, a Creole sweet potato galette.

After a longish wait, our smartly black-clad waiter returned with our food. Geoff's choice arrived on a wavey platter so long it barely fitted on the table but was a feast for the eyes. First up was the soup of the day, a lentil soup with a herb neither of us could remember but which Geoff thought might have been coriander. He said the soup was "delicate" but very good. A beautifully constructed hijiki seaweed salad was ribbons of cucumber, radish and carrot with long dark (noodle-looking) strands of seaweed dressed in a Japanese sweet-sour dressing. A few rounds of pepper sushi sat on the side. It went down well.

The last of the trio was Thai tempeh falafel balls. Like Hilary and The White House, some pairings just aren't meant to be. Although the dish looked gorgeous, Thai spices and falafel are just not compatible. They were also as dry as the Negev with about as much flavour. The shaved pickled green papaya salad also lacked flavour.

My Creole sweet potato galette was attractive - A Big Brother household of food, many colourful characters with little in common. The creatively described galette was more a layered potato bake with sweet potato, white potato and cheddar cheese. It was a delicious carby, cheesey flavour filled treat.

I think the Creole responsibility lay with its plate mates - mostly a bland black bean, red pepper and corn hotpot. I've never been a fan of the often-slimey okra, but these (briefly) deep-fried versions were fresh and crunchy. Avocado and lime puree was fresh and punchy, and the coconut and habanero salsa was essentially insipid pinkish desiccated coconut with little or no chilli. My favourite was the delicious slices of sweet, grilled plaintain the whole lot sat on. All in all, a really interesting, attractive and varied dish.

Desserts were also beautifully presented. Geoff - a crumble man - wolfed down his apple and candied fruit crumble. My fruit salad was an attractive Jenga like construction of pineapple, strawberries, blueberries and orange, decorated with creme fraiche and agave syrup.

With one glass of wine, the meal came in at just short of £60. Not cheap, but we both felt we'd had value for money. Married to a grumpy vegetarian, I'll definitely be back.


F ifteen minutes it took to get the first round of drinks in. It was not that we were procrastinating about what we wanted. Within a couple of seconds of entering the Spaniards Inn, the partner has spotted the Addlestone's cloudy cider and there were only two real ales on the Sunday afternoon we visited.

The problem was the number of people waiting to be served and the lack of staff behind the bar to see to their thirst and hunger.

It was compounded by a bar manager who seemed to want to micro-manage every little thing that was happening. Every member of staff seemed to come to her every couple of minutes, taking her mind from the job in hand, which should have been a beer pump or a corkscrew.

It was a warm day so I was particularly parched especially after waiting far too long for a 210 bus along Spaniards Road.

So, there I was stranded at the bar. And I would have had to wait longer, but for the first time in my life, I caught the staff's eye before the man who was technically in front of me - and I was not about to turn my back on such a windfall.

Now armed with my Adnams bitter, I was in a much better mood to look around and drink in the history. The pub was built in 1585 as a tollgate inn and both the tollbooth and pub are listed.

There is no documentary evidence to support the popular story that the renowned highwayman Dick Turp in drank here, but the poet John Keats certainly did, while Charles Dickens wrote about it in Pickwick Papers and Barnaby Rudge.

Judging from the number of accents and languages being spoken in what seemed like acres of beer garden, I can only assume the Spaniards and its long history is one of those London pubs that appears in every travel guide in every language.

Its proximity to Hampstead Heath makes it ideal not only for visitors but for walkers and dog walkers. There is plenty of room outside to sit in relative comfort and privacy, with tables placed at various levels in their own spaces. In winter, the old wood floors and large tables inside offer a cosy place to meet friends, drink and eat.

There is a good menu, serving decent food, where tales of travels can be exchanged. And I'm sure that on most days I would have been able to make my order with a far less dry throat.

Spaniards Inn, Spaniards Road, phone 020-8731 6571.

Barry Reynolds