Jyoti's (Birmingham)

I know people who rave about this place, but after a very mediocre curry there 5 years ago I didn't rush back. The dhal contained approximately 2 lentils and the poppadoms made Sharwoods look good. I went a couple of years ago on my birthday and had a pretty similar experience.

Urban legend has it that Jamie Oliver once visited and loved the experience so much that he returned and allowed himself to be photo'd several times with the owners. Excellent PR though this is, there's just something a bit unnerving about having pictures of Jamie Oliver staring at you on their homepage, from the menu and on the wall, watching you eat.

Jyoti's is an Indian restaurant and "sweet centre" on Stratford Road. The staff are friendly, 80% of the menu is vegan (non-vegan things are marked for once) and the prices are fantastic.

For the uninitiated; sweet centre basically means deli. As usual almost all the sweet things contain dairy, but most of the savoury items are vegan. The takeout prices are very good - a samosa is just 40p.

Having been a few times I think I've figured it out now. Their sweet centre items (which are served as starters / sides in the restaurant) are excellent. In fact, I'll go as far as saying that their samosas are the best I've ever tasted.

The filling seems to be mashed potato based rather than chunks of veg, but the flavour is simply amazing. The pastry's crispy, they're ever so slightly sweet and have just the right amount of heat.

It's their currys that just don't inspire me. For reasons unknown their dosas are all non-vegan - I'd be happy with a nice masala dosa instead of curry.

With this in mind I think I'd go back - either for takeout or a banquet of sides.

Whilst I'm on the subject of things they do right, their pooris are excellent. The eat in price is 45p each, so I had 5 :) Masala poori are twice the price though and taste almost identical.

We had a few starters, including Batetawada (bhajis in pastry), which were really tasty too (the filling was quite similar to samosa):

We were given a couple of pani puri to try, which I wasn't overly taken by (hollow pastry balls stuffed with random stuff):

I ordered a "Puri and Aloo Curry", as it comes with 4 poori and seemed good value for money. The curry itself though was fairly boring and I probably wouldn't have it again. We also had a "Makai and Kaju", which was essentially a big bowl of sweet corn in some sauce with a few cashew nuts. It had more flavour than the Aloo, but again I don't think I'd order it in the future. The rice portions are quite generous, so we shared one along with poori.

I'm generally not that taken by Indian sweets, but we had a couple of Ladu to take away, that we ate in the car on the way home.

They were actually pretty good. You can just about eat a whole one without dying of sugar overdose and I'd definitely have them again.

As Jyoti's is not that far from my girlfriend's place; I need to find a way of co-ercing her into bringing takeout to my house when she comes. Their sweet centre is in a whole different league to their curry and I'd happily become a regular customer.

Crêpe Suzette

Pancakes in boozy orange juice.

Crêpe Suzette is really easy to make - I used to make it for breakfast when we spent our summers in France in the 80s/90s. If you substitute butter for marg and ensure you use vegan alcohol; pretty much any Crêpe Suzette recipe will work.

In fact, you don't really need a recipe at all. Just melt some margarine in a pan and add orange juice/peel, lemon juice/peel, sugar and Cointreau to taste. Simmer down slightly, add pancakes and warm through. If flambéing's your thing then pour a ladle of flaming cointreau or brandy over at the end - it's not strictly needed though. You can leave out the booze altogether if you like.

Here's the quantities I used last night:
  • 6 Pancakes
  • Knob of Margarine
  • 1 Orange (zest only)
  • 1 Lemon (zest + juice)
  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 100g Castor Sugar
  • 75ml Cointreau + extra for flambéing
I blogged my pancake recipe a year ago (clicky click) which worked perfectly. I mixed half of the soya milk with the flour first, then whisked in the rest of the milk. It looked a little thin at first but seemed to do the job and came out lump free.

Zest the orange and the lemon, then juice the lemon. Add to the orange juice along with the sugar and cointreau.

Heat the margarine in a pan, then add the liquid. Simmer for 5 minutes so that it reduces slightly and becomes more syrupy. Taste and add more sugar / booze as needed.

You may choose to remove the zest at this point - whilst it looks nice it doesn't taste so great. Add the pancakes one by one, sliding under the sauce then folding into quarters. Warm through for a couple of minutes.

If you feel the need to set fire to things; either seek professional help or heat a ladle of cointreau, light and add to the pan (or pour the Crêpe Suzette once served).

You can serve with icecream if you like, but it tastes perfectly fine on its own. I can thoroughly recommend eating it immediately whilst the pancakes are still delicate. I discovered to my dismay last night that if you pounce around with a camera for 20 minutes they can become rather chewy! :O

Herbies (Exeter)

Don't let the dodgy decor put you off - Herbies is by far the best place to eat in Exeter.

It's dimly lit, with more brown than you can shake a stick at. I think the last time I went they'd changed the color of a few of the walls, but it's a long way away from light and airy. There's a metal (heating?) pipe that runs around the perimeter, that you always seem to get your chair leg caught around. There's a definite slant in certain places too.

Decor aside: it's in the city centre, has an extremely well priced menu with plenty of vegan choice and produces consistantly good quality food. It's all veg, gets pretty busy at times and I always end up in there when visiting Exeter (normally a couple of times a year).

It sells the world's best (that I've tasted so far) vegan brownie. There's nothing more annoying than the scores of crap recipes online, from people who think undercooked equals gooey. Herbies use a method for making theirs which I've never heard before, that lets them get gooey on the inside whilst still perfectly cooked. They kindly donated me the recipe, but I haven't permission to post online. No photo either I'm affraid - I never get that far :)

Their burgers appear home made and are pretty decent:

certainly above average. You'll notice the no-expense-spared Ikea glasses, but at these prices I honestly don't care.

The nachos are really good, and big enough to share. In general the portion sizes are very generous, and they make up a lot of things fresh that others buy in, such as vegan mayo.

I'm normally too stuffed for dessert and get brownie to takeaway, but managed a sticky toffee pudding last time I was there. It was really good - up to my own standards :)

I can't recommend Herbies enough. For the price the food is excellent and there's nothing else in Exeter that comes close. If when I next visit I find they've sorted the decor then it'll be even better :)

Cafe Soya (Birmingham)

People have been mentioning this place for years, but when I phoned up in 2005 the staff didn't fill me with any confidence at all that they actually do cater for vegans. I've therefore since been giving it a good ignoring.

Eventually I visited it a few months back; my girlfriend had been recently and said it was OK.

Unfortunately it seems that you really do have to get lucky to find a member of staff there who knows what veganism means; whilst she'd gotten lucky, on our trip I'm not convinced we found one.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that with a name like Cafe Soya that it must be a veg restaurant. It's not, in the slightest. They do have a separate vegetarian menu, but nothing is marked and no one who was working there the evening we went seemed to have a clue what was vegan and what wasn't.

When we'd eventually communicated as best we could, they took our order. Spring rolls and mock duck for starter, sweet and sour tofu, steamed rice and another tofu dish for main:

The spring rolls were meh. There were OK, but nothing special.

The mock duck + pancakes was better. Not up to veggie world standards, but pretty good - about what I could do out of a tin. If I return I'd order this again.

The sweet and sour was pretty boring. Decent lumps of fried tofu, but otherwise not particularly memorable (if I hadn't taken a photo I'd probably have forgotten about it!)

I can't remember what the other dish was (I'm good at this restaurant reviewing, aren't I?). I seem to remember it tasting OK however, if that helps!

If I'd have eaten there 10 years ago I expect that I'd have been pretty impressed. Since then however I've been both spoilt by places like Veggie World, and learnt how to cook my favourite dishes at home. As such, considering the food was rather mediocre; I wasn't overly taken by my trip to Cafe Soya and shalln't be rushing back.

Manic Organic (Birmingham)

Having lived in the region for 7 years; I've only heard this place mentioned once before. It's odd for a vegetarian cafe to get so little attention amongst the vegan community (completely obsessed with food).

It only came to my attention again because we've eaten at the Warehouse far too many times recently and Jyotis is currently closed for a holiday. As the UK's second largest city; Birmingham really doesn't score well on the number of places to eat at the moment.

We checked it out last Saturday and as usual I snuck my camera along. The place is easy to find and has free parking at the Asda next door.

The first thing you notice about this place is that it's definitely a cafe. Whilst the Warehouse claims to be a cafe too, it resembles more of a low budget restaurant than a cafe. Here you pay before getting your food and collect your own cutlery.

The second thing; it was packed. They definitely have a good customer base.

It's not expensive, but it's not super cheap either. The menu is very cheese/egg orientated and no items are marked vegan. The front of house staff don't seem to know what is vegan either, so every query requires a separate trip to the kitchen - a minor annoyance and not overly impressive.

We didn't have long so just ordered mains. I had a burger (with mushrooms) and Sarah a "samosa".

They've a sign behind the counter that proudly proclaims their choice not to serve deep fried food. As I'm fairly sure the crisps the burger comes with are deep fried, I can't help but feel that this policy is a little confused. If anything's going to be deep fried I'd rather it were some proper chips or wedges.</grumpy old man>

The burger itself looked home-made (I've not seen any quite like it before), but was really bland and seriously lacked flavour.

The "samosa" was quite unlike any I've ever seen before:

It was basically a large triangular burrito (I guess they couldn't use samosa pastry as that would need to be fried). In contrast to the burger however it was packed with flavour and actually pretty nice.

Their juice appears to be freshly squeezed, and my smoothie included a label from a piece of fruit (which on balance is probably more reassuring than alarming).

In short: if it was located at the end of my road I'd probably pop in quite regularly. As it's not; I can't say for sure that I'll return.

Shivalli (Leicester)

Shivalli in Leicester is one of the UK's better vegetarian South Indian restaurants.

In a previous life it was known as Halli, but that particular restaurant changed hands a few years ago and started serving meat. Luckily Shivalli has since opened a short walk away and seems to have pretty much the same menu / members of staff.

On Sundays they've a sensibly priced all you can eat buffet, however when we took advantage of it last year I wasn't overly impressed by the quality of things on offer. Unlimited poori yes, but too much gloop and not enough ingredients (as is often the case with all you can eat).

As I'd once had the best dosa of my life at Halli, we ate from the menu when we returned to Shivalli a couple of weeks ago.

I'm always a little wary when menus on websites don't include prices, however in Shivalli's case everything is cheaper than you expect it to be. Two people can get pretty full for under £20. I'd definitely recommend avoiding the buffet in future and paying a little extra for better ingredients.

They don't mark what's vegan and what's not on their menu, which is a tad annoying. The staff are clueful though and pretty much anything that sounds vegan either is or can be made so.

Demonstrating my lack of knowledge about Indian food; for starter I ordered a Bhel Poori. I absolutely love standard poori, so I couldn't possibly go wrong, right?

Sadly Bhel Poori appears to be a little different. After I'd gotten over my initial disappointment I was pleased to find that all was not lost. Though it looks a lot like a big boring dish of bombay mix, it's soft, sticky and flavourful. I'd certainly order it again, but with some real poori on the side!

We also got a Kajoo Padoka (cashew nuts in batter), which comes in a very generous portion:

I probably wouldn't get this dish again - it's OK, but I'd rather just eat a bowl of salted cashews. They're a little dry and definitely need to be eaten with the condiments.

The Onion Masala Rava Dosa I ordered for mains was up to previous standards; far nicer than those I've had at places like Sagar:

We ordered a "Mix" Uttappam too, then swapped our plates half way through (classy I know):

On its own I found this dish really bland. It's like a giant omelette with no taste. If you carefully ration the condiments however it really comes to life and tastes fantastic.

I like Shivalli and will certainly return. I prefer it to the other veg Indian restaurant in the centre (Mirch Masala) and now I know you can find free parking nearby on Sundays, there's no excuse not to.