Tuesday, 11 March 2014

REVIEW: Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, Bath

Vegetarian restaurants were never meant to be this much fun. I mean, during the course of my lunch at the Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, I spotted rosy-cheeked front of house staff smiling and, whisper it, diners laughing. And there I was thinking that all vegetarian restaurants were po-faced no-fun zones full of hairshirted Guardian readers nibbling dry, rabbit hutch salads and gagging on leaden nutloaves.

Acorn – I’ll drop the Vegetarian Kitchen bit now to keep the word count down a bit – occupies the tucked away spot where legendary Bath restaurant Demuth’s ruled the South West veggie roost for almost a quarter of a century. Chef Richard Buckley used to work at Demuth’s and when the opportunity came up to take over the building, he jumped at the chance and called in passionate foodie friends Jack Kelly, Helen Wilshire and Robert Eldon.

Acorn opened in 2013 and in less than a year it has firmly established itself as a rare outpost of fine vegetarian cooking, recently gaining a glowing review in a national Sunday newspaper, as well as self-publishing a charming little cookbook, all of which has helped to put a few more yoga-toned bums on seats.

Hidden off the beaten track in the centre of Bath, close to the famous Sally Lunn’s tea shop, Acorn is small but perfectly formed. Set across two floors of a handsome Georgian building, the ground floor has high ceilings, elegant white and grey wood panelling and sash windows offering glimpses of Bath Abbey over the rooftops of the honey-coloured stone buildings at the rear.

A few high shelves of books include such carefully selected tomes as the Momofuku cookbook, Larousse Gastronomique and the Post Office Guide Book of 1947. It all makes for a rather serene and modest setting for the vibrant, innovative food on offer.

As is the way in many restaurants at the moment, there is an emphasis on ‘little plates’ to share and these preprandial nibbles include such arresting snacks as polenta chips and plum ketchup and garlic dhal with greens.
But the first thing that really strikes you about the menus here are the prices. From the set menu, three courses will set you back £16.95 and two courses are £13.95.

If you are ordering from the a la carte, the most expensive item is the Dorset Blue Vinny cheesecake with red wine poached plums, thyme shallots, local leaf salad and pecans, which clocks in at a modest £10.25. At a time when meat prices, particularly beef, continue to spiral off the spreadsheet for many chefs, this is a kitchen that proves you can feed people very well for a fair price and still make a living.

I chose from the main menu and there wasn’t a dud among the three courses. Buckley and his team have that uncanny knack of extracting maximum flavour from the most humble of ingredients and this was perfectly illustrated in a starter charmingly called ‘Mike’s roast beetroots’. I’m not sure who Mike is - presumably one of the local growers supplying the kitchen - but he would be flattered by the respect his beets get in the Acorn’s basement kitchen.

The crescent-shaped wedges of golden beetroot had a real depth of flavour, sweet but seriously earthy at the same time. They were teamed with a deep-hued red beetroot purée and two scoops of silky blackcurrant sorbet perched on a nutty, cumin-scented dukka.

A main course of white onion tart comprised a puff pastry disc topped with thick, soft and sweet rounds of roasted onion flanked by a few knobbly baby carrots, blobs of intense thyme pesto and a bed of Puy lentils and shredded greens. It was a dish big on flavour as well as box-ticking textural contrast.

Desserts are a strength rather than an afterthought – a quivering vanilla pannacotta having the perfect silicone implant wobble and served with candy pink pieces of Yorkshire rhubarb and crisp, buttery shortbread.

Exciting, sensibly priced food served by friendly, smiley staff and not a collarless hemp shirt or pair of Jesus boots in sight – if vegetarian restaurants were always this much fun, I would seriously consider the veggie option more often.

Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen, 2 North Parade Passage, Bath, BA1 1NX. Tel: 01225 446059. www.acornvegetariankitchen.co.uk

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