As some of you may have been aware, May 14-20 was National Vegetarian Week; a whole week where we are encouraged to put down the chicken thighs and the beef steaks and to instead pick up some vegetables and enjoy the literal fruits from nature’s larder.
I am (obviously) not a vegetarian and to be honest, although I agree that we should all reduce our meat consumption quite significantly, I rarely think that these events that are made to publicise a particular lifestyle (or dietary) choice are a good idea or an even particularly effective. Having said this, however, this year I actually decided to jump on the vegetarian bandwagon and go the whole week without eating meat.
So why this decision? Well it all started with an email. On May 14, I received a newsletter email from The Frog restaurants offering 20% off all vegetarian dishes throughout the week. Now, there’s an offer that’s hard to refuse, particularly for those of us trying desperately to live the champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget. So, I booked us in for an evening of veggie goodness at the original The Frog (which now comes with an E1 in the name) in Shoreditch.
I took a friend to The Frog when it originally opened back in 2016. We went on its second night during the soft launch period and munched our way through the entire tasting menu plus every other dish on the menu that wasn’t included (you could tell it was their soft launch – there’s no way in hell they would do that now). I can remember thinking that, even though many of the dishes on the menu were the same as when Adam Handling had his Caxton’s restaurant in St Ermin’s Hotel, they were so good and inspired that I didn’t care that I’d had some of it before.
Fast forward two years and Adam Handling has handed the metaphorical torch over to head chef Jamie Park, who you may recognise from his strong performance on the most recent series of Masterchef: The Professionals. While Adam Handling may be spending more time in Covent Garden these days, and will be moving onto Belmond soon enough, his legacy is still very prominent in the menu which continues to feature his classic dishes such as “Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot” and the “Cheese doughnuts” that come out looking like they’ve been in a snow storm of cheese.
Sat in the outside-yet-indoor-campsite-type-porch part of the restaurant, we placed our order for all the vegetarian options off the à la carte menu. We didn’t go for the vegetarian tasting menu as my companion went slightly rogue and insisted on having the short-rib of beef, which I refuse to show here because I didn’t try it…even though it looked and smelled amazing.
In retaliation, I ordered a glass of the Picpoul De Pinet and sat back in my non-swinging chair to relax.
The first dish came from the Snacks ‘eat with your hands’ part of the menu. Although it was described as burnt toast, the snacks were far from charred and instead appeared to be thin slices of crisp bread covered in a fresh green concoction of peas and mint, with a generous shaving of Parmesan finishing it off. As someone who would most definitely turn their nose up at the idea of eating minted peas normally, the balance on these snacks was so delicate that I literally ended up eating my words. Crisp, fresh, with a delightful cheesiness rounding off the snack.
Oh buratta, we meet again. Burrata, basil and courgette; three ingredients that shout of summer and conjure up images of picnics in the park (with a few bottles of bubbly on ice too).
Yes, the buratta was its usual wonderful, creamy self but, let’s be honest, there is no skill to be seen from the chefs simply putting the cheese on the plate. So we turn to the other elements of the dish. The mandolin slices of raw courgette were fine but are rather like mushrooms when not cooked, a slightly unexpected texture and not a lot of flavour. Unfortunately, the pool of green purée sat under the buratta was really disappointing. It was definitely on the over-seasoned side of salty, and I say this as someone who has a tendency to over-season most of my own cooking. It was a relief to have the giant ball of cheese just to offer contrast to the salty purée.
Hidden under this carefully constructed roof of apple strips was several slices of baked celeriac and a delicate little egg yolk. Breaking through the yolk acted as a wonderfully thick and slightly sickly sauce that combined all the elements together into a highly indulgent mouthful.
OK, so now we get to the part of the meal I was looking forward to the most: Mac and Cheese – The Frog way. I had this dish on my first visit and I can still remember how good it was, how much care and attention – not to mention hard work – had gone into the dish. Individual tubes of macaroni pasta filled with a herby oil and covered in the cheesiest of bechamels, with a heap of grated truffle and Parmesan finishing it all off. So I will admit that I was a bit taken aback by the dish that came out the other day.
Breaking through the lashings of bechamel on this dish revealed non of the interior glory of that original dish. My honest opinion, that this was just a nice macaroni cheese but not a patch on 2016’s version. Have a look at the picture below and you’ll see what I mean.
Recommended to us by chef, we picked the lemon, white chocolate and Douglas fir dessert. This was also very similar to one of the desserts eaten on my first visit except the yuzu had been replaced by the lemon – same idea, different citrus. I really enjoyed each individual element; the lemon sorbet bitingly refreshing, that hit of sugar from the white chocolate mousse, plus the slight toasted flavour of the meringues that came through at the end. The Douglas fir, however, was indistinguishable and I’m still not convinced lemon and white chocolate work together.
After a dinner of ups and downs, boy oh boy did we finish on an absolute stonker of a dish. The second time in my life I’ve had a chocolate mousse made with silken tofu, and the second time in my life that I’ve declared it the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The silkiness that it gives the texture of the mousse makes it just unbelievably moreish but also incredibly rich. In comes the role of the blackberries, cutting through the richness with its contrasting acid notes. Hints of rosemary throughout gave beautiful savoury notes to the dish, while a quenelle of caramel ice cream was an unnecessary but delicious addition.
I’m always intrigued to see the vegetarian options on restaurant menus. There is still so much expectation that meat and fish are the focus of the menu that vegetarian options often just appear to be an afterthought, put there to give that one “picky” member of the group something to eat. I would argue, however, that you can tell the real skill of a chef (or team of chefs) by the vegetarian dishes that they come up with. What we had at The Frog E1 was certainly far more imaginative than your standard vegetarian options, although the classic prevalence of cheese suggests that there is still some lack of imagination when it comes to vegetables. There were some dishes that missed the mark slightly, but also some high flyers that I will remember for years to come. Seriously though, get that Mac and Cheese back to its former glory.