To characterise a meal as vegan is much less portentous than it is to attribute the same to a person. With a meal, the term merely signifies that the food to be served is prepared without the use of animal products. On the other hand, to characterise a person as vegan may go beyond his or her simple preference for vegetarian food without animal ingredients. Ethical vegans take their dietary restrictions a step further, propagating a philosophy that is against the concept of commodifying animals and championing the idea that our unethical treatment and wrongful consumption is harming the planet. Now, when you have ideas, and are generally outnumbered by the meat-eating populace, it becomes difficult to not come across as messianic, elitist, or at the very least aggressive. Hence, there is always some reaction to one’s vegan identification: an eyeroll, a backward head tilt, or an enthusiastic lean forward, but almost never taken as a matter of fact.
But these debates are swamps I would prefer to avoid. All things considered, if the food tastes spectacular I, personally, am unlikely to maintain any conscious prejudices against that particular purveyor. While an alluring décor and ambiance has its place, and the quality of the service is always appreciated, it is the food that keeps me coming back, or the sole reason I never return.
The Tipsy Vegan was a place recommended to me by my girlfriend, who was, I might add, very excited to try the animal-free good stuff they had on offer. Due to her recent interest in knowing more about the vegan lifestyle and trying to make subtle changes to her diet in order to ‘live better’, it only seemed a matter of time before she decided to give a vegan restaurant a go. After our mutual agreement that I was beyond saving, that her eventual evolution into a more advanced vegan statement would just annoy me, Maddy more indifferently resigned than disappointed, accepted my abstention from partaking in her transition. In time, perhaps, I could be pressured to eat more vegan, but would never do so completely. In any case, to show my support, I looked through a few vegan menus in Norwich, and gave her a list to look over for date night.
The trouble with vegan cuisine is that it is incredibly difficult to get right. Delicious and addictive flavours reside almost pervasively within fats, singularly from meat and dairy, making it inherently more troublesome a prospect to replicate their effects in vegan cooking. More generally, however, the best way to make great food in any cuisine is to work creatively with fresh, quality ingredients. This focus on excellent ingredients and technique intensifies with vegan food, because there is no reliably flavoursome animal fat to make it all easier. Anthony Bourdain once said, that in any given meal at a good restaurant, one has easily consumed at least one stick of butter by the end.
The Tipsy Vegan is a small restaurant located not too far from central Norwich, down St. Benedict Street that palpably emanates the familiar hipster swagger of the Lanes. People with hair that matched the floweriness of their clothes and earlobes that could be used as lassos, walked animatedly and forlornly passed and towards us. It seemed a lively area with trendy barbershops, tearooms, and restaurants all trying to be unique but evoking a familiar flavour.
Entering the restaurant, one immediately gets the sense of a deliberate take on an old-fashioned speakeasy: the antiquated furniture and green wood-panelled walls contributed much to an evident transatlantic vibe. There were even photographs of Al Capone on the wall, pertinent jazz music in the background and, of course, lights with demonstrably iridescent filaments. The staff were in white shirts and bowties too, smart looking and smiley, which made us feel perfectly welcome.
Since The Tipsy Vegan didn’t do lunch on Sundays, we were given the brunch menu. We also surprised by thoroughly stocked drinks menu, but unfortunately, both of Maddy and I deemed it too early for alcoholic beverages, so we gave the cocktails a pass.
In terms of food, there were not too many options to choose from, which to the optimist in me read as evoking an air of specialisation. It also meant that we were not going to miss out on much. We ordered three dishes out of the five: the Irish Breakfast, Mexicana Hash and the St.Benedicts. And to drink we asked for Fritz Kola – a brand of cola we previously thought were only available in Germany – for Maddy and a Fentmans ginger beer for myself.
So far so good at The Tipsy Vegan until, of course, the food actually came. The Mexicana Hash, colourful though messily presented, was comprised of potatoes heavily under-seasoned, and made soggy through their mixing with the black beans and peppers. The vegan chorizo, the component I was most excited to try, was a pallid shade of the original upon which it is based. Its texture was that of an underdone meatball, and flavour so besieged with paprika and garlic, that only a drunken smoker might mistake it for stodgy piece of chorizo after a night out on a bank holiday. I feel bad for the avocado crema that garnished the dish. Under better circumstances, it would have added a welcome juxtaposition of light, tangy creaminess to a spicy mixture of crisp and deep flavours and textures.
The worst plate by far at The Tipsy Vegan was the Irish Breakfast, both an insult to the Irish and most certainly to breakfast; each component contributing individually and collectively to the shambles it was. In retrospect, the slight hesitation of our waitress when we declined her offer of brown sauce or ketchup was telling. The leek and herb sausages were dry though not without the ghost of flavour; the tofu bacon was an embarrassment, tasting like a sorry sliver of brined cardboard; the scrambled tofu was not too bad, though once again bland and under-seasoned; and the oatmeal based white pudding reminded me of gloopy Paxo white sauce. What did taste good were the house smoked beans. They were sweet, rich and smoky, accompanied well by the crisp sourdough toast. I would have probably had a plate of them on their own and been satisfied, albeit understandably unimpressed.
The St. Benedict was a pleasant surprise after the disappointment of the other two dishes, but was still underwhelming on the whole. The flat mushroom sitting limply on the English muffin base, exuded an enticing redolence of the ever trite yet delicious garlic butter combination – always hard to resist for my palate. The faux-hollandaise sauce made with vegan butter and coconut milk came surprisingly close to the texture and consistency of real hollandaise, but was unjustly betrayed by the wilted spinach element of the dish. Perhaps it was put on there for colour contrast, but in denouement, it contributed only an iron-tasting sliminess that had no place being on the plate.
The beauty of how an Eggs Benedict maintains its structural consistency after the egg is breached, resides in how the parma ham, smoked salmon or bacon placed right under the poached egg, prevents the moisture of the hollandaise and the runny yolk from permeating through to the muffin base. This allows the muffin to keep its fluffy and lightly toasted character. Unfortunately, the St. Benedict had no such membrane (though I do breathe a sigh of relief that a horrid strip of tofu bacon was not introduced), and therefore, midway through our meal at The Tipsy Vegan, the muffin became irredeemably squelchy.
I think the biggest issue with The Tipsy Vegan was in its desire to present meals that were evidently vegan alternatives to original meat recipes. At this particular point in time, there is no way to effectively replicate such culturally archetypal meals as the Full-English, or ingredients such as chorizo, through vegan means. Even the most painstakingly produced synthetic protein flops in comparison to the real thing. It thus begs the question, why waste time and money serving them when there are so many more beautiful and incredible things that can be done with just well-sourced vegetables and the other plant-based ingredients. I would argue that it only requires chefs to be more diligent and creative in a kitchen that requires, for the sake of our planet, to win more people over.
68-70 St Benedicts St, Norwich NR2 4AR
Brunch dishes £5-9