Ostara is the first eastery in which I have actually preferred the vegetarian selection over the meat. Not because the solitary rarebit was bad by any means – though I suppose the pork could have been more moist around the edges – but because the other dishes were just that much better.
The experience made me question the almost ubiquitious self-evidence of the idea that vegetarian dishes are, from the onset, inferior to their fleshy counterparts. While there are many arguments for this to be true, especially since meat represents the focal point in nearly every popular cuisine, I believe that the true potential of vegetarian cuisine has yet to be fully explored.
Traditional gourmands and chefs alike would defend meat supremacy to the death, claiming that there are certain inimitable qualities of animal protein that cannot be justly replicated. A good meal requires a well-prepared piece of meat, and there is no natural substitute for its flavour and texture that clings so readily to human sensitivities. But these assessments are usually based on flawed sample sizes. People tend to make comparisons having tasted plenty of diverse non-vegetarian meals but only a few incidental vegetarian ones coloured by a cultural predisposition against them. Pretty unfair if you ask me.
The calibre of vegetables should be measured not against the qualities of meat but considered for ther own unique propensities for deliciousness. They bring different things to the table: a multifariousnesss of texture, as well as an affinity towards diverse and unique preparation. Thinking about it, comparing vegetables to meat is almost like trying to judge swimmers on how fast they run the hundred metre dash.
But the scale of gastronomic popularity is still heavily tilted towards non-vegetarianism. It has been the case since we discovered it was possible to eat the cooked flesh of a dead animal. Eating and serving meat now constitutes the norm, and everything besides have become either departures or offshoots from the meaty pith.
I mean there isn’t even a real word for someone who eats meat – calling them a carnivore is metaphorical; no one calls a vegetarian a herbivore in good taste. We don’t really need one. A defining term is unnecessary when the prefix ‘non’ before vegetarian seems to be sufficient. Restaurants that have meat predominant menus are not even required to declare themselves to be so – it is automatically the cultural assumption. And I suppose, rightly so. Vegan and vegetarian establishments, however, must be clearly signposted and easily identified, or else risk being sued for misinformation.
Of course, not all meat eaters hate veggies (I mean vegetables not vegetarians to be specific, although I know a fair few people that despise both). In fact most rather enjoy them as sides or picturesque elements in plate art. But interest tends to stop there. Given the choice, people would much rather pick the prime cut steak over a the slice of charred cauliflower.
The few obligatory vegetarian dishes on menus are usually marked by the customary ‘V’ beside their titles. It is a general rule that one in five diners tend to be inconveniently vegetarian so it is important to make allowance for their inconvenient existence. Also it is quite common for the names of vegetables and vegetarian dishes to sound absurd and foreign to most people, so icons are required to be sure.
If you are lucky a few of these meat-free options may even be appetising, but I think it is safe to say that the likelihood of them not being as tasty as the signature duck confit or braised chicken thighs is perceptably high.
But what if this pervasive menu bias was removed, and a normal restaurant or café decides to ‘flip the script’, choosing to offer vegetable dishes with a side of meat or have a diverse vegetarian assortment with a singular meat option marked for the desperate?
At Ostara, one such blasphemous place, a neat little café in the trendy Leith district of Edinburgh, the menu placed before you has no mention of meat at first glance. You frantically turn the sheet over but unfortunately recieve no respite. A list of all the café’s suppliers is what greets you, full of admirable descriptions of good practice, but you are hungry and cannot fathom the idea of a decent meal without meat.
A second go-over reveals a couple of fish dishes, and a gammon rarebit that induces a sigh of relief and wipe of the forehead. This is good, you atleast have something to order. How dare they leave out the ‘(M)’ to make things easier, or the cow, chicken or fish icons? How bloody inconsiderate…not everyone eats…veg…wait a minute…
I wonder if going to Ostara was some preplanned, discombobulating role-reversal orchestrated by my vegetarian hosts, Molly and Andrew. Molly a fellow foodblogger and Maddy’s childhood friend, and her coffee obsessed boyfriend Andrew, were the friends who we’d gone to Edinburgh to visit. I think it would be appropriate to summarise them as individuals as close to the ideal embodiment of vegetarian-ness without the accompanying insufferability. With Maddy’s probable forewarning of my proclivities, I think such devious preparation might have been possible.
I think that because they had successfully taken us out to a good vegetarian dinner the night before, I was not as panicked as I just made out to be. I would have been – and some unsuspecting guests would be too – had it not been for their considerate decision to eat at places that did leave a meatlover, such as myself, options in case he got desperate.
In the mid-morning chill of Edinburgh, brunch at Ostara promises a comfortable setting, filled with the warmth of happy people, pink walls and the scents of teas, coffees and cake. It is not unlike many takes on hybrid vintage-hipster tearooms and coffeeshops we see these days, but it is a charming spot nevertheless.
We settled in a corner sharing a low coffee table and were given menus, as previously described in hyperbole, with dishes which are far less panic provoking than they are genuinely intriguing. Faced with the unfamiliar scenario of having only one meat option, I felt compelled to atleast give it a go. Since the others were diving head first into the veggie ball pit, I knew I wasn’t going to miss out on anything.
I liked my rarebit as a whole, a dish with the requisite morning heaviness and saltiness to cure the most persistent hangover. The cheese was fullbodied, beautifully draped over the slice of gammon, and the base of firm sourdough toast was beautifully toasted, holding firm even with the unctuousness layed above it. As I foreshadowed, it was the meat that proved to be the dish’s let down. It was slightly dry and lifeless around the corners, a chore to eat when attempted on its own.
On the other hand, every vegetarian creation at Ostara was a thing of beauty, both in terms of aesthetics and flavour. Each poached egg was perfectly runny and supremely formed; each vegetable and fruit, from the fluffy squash to the poached pear, was fresh and delicious; and every composition, whether it be the crisp-edged pillowy root veg rosti with a richly sweet beetroot aioli, the colourful granola with yoghurt panna cotta, or the simple poached eggs on toast were eye-brighteningly, lip-lickingly good.
Ostara has changed the brunch game for me, a compelling reminder that you don’t have to order meat to have a good meal at restaurants these days. The tides are turning, with more and more places switching the emphasis onto quality vegetarian ingredients and, if meat is to be had, products from reliably farmed sources.
I think it’s a quite the humbling experience to order, for loyalty and patriotism, the meat option at a mainly vegetarian restaurant, only to eventually realise you would have been better off without it. I think eating at places like Ostara is an experience more restaurants should be actively invested in. For to effectively convince a carnivore that vegetarian dishes are viable, a focused effort must manifest through the taste of good cooking and fresh ingredients, and not from the threats of annoying self-righteous activists.
52 Coburg St, Edinburgh EH6 6HJ