When I learned the great dog behaviourist Patricia McConnell would be giving a two-day seminar in Edinburgh, I signed up, knowing that might be the only chance I'd get to see her—she's based in Madison, Wisconsin, my old stomping grounds.
And I had another reason for going to Edinburgh: I've been wanting to try David Bann's vegetarian restaurant, right off the Royal Mile, for ages.
So last week we packed up the new car and headed north, arriving in time for dinner. We took a bus into town, since we were staying outside of the city, and landed on Princes Street. From my research I had identified at least three vegetarian restaurants in the city centre, and Henderson's Bistro wasn't far away.
Henderson's is actually several restaurants: There's an informal cafeteria-style eatery facing Hanover Street and down a short flight of stairs. From the street it looked as if there were only a few tables, so we went around the corner to the Bistro, which offers a full restaurant experience. We were quickly seated and handed menus, and I was delighted to see the haggis was vegan. Because a trip to Edinburgh just wouldn't be complete without haggis, right?
The haggis came with "clapshot", a name which may have been coined by Hendersons, according to our waiter. Clapshot is tatties and neeps, or potatoes and turnips, mashed. For a starter, I ordered a warm salad of roasted butternut squash and smoked tofu.
I was unsure what kind of wine to order with haggis, but the waiter was helpful: "Red, I think," he said, but he also thought beer would do just as well. Red it was, a nice organic red.
The salad would have been enough for a light meal, and indeed it comes in a larger size if that's your intention. But I was starving, having eaten little on the drive north. I scarfed the salad, every last currant, while my husband enjoyed the soup of the day.
The haggis was beautiful to behold. A platform of haggis, topped by tatties and neeps, served with a cup of gravy for dipping. The gravy was more like the thin gravy you might get with a roast beef sandwich, only better. The haggis was succulent tidbits of lentils, kidney beans, mushrooms, and of course oats, the only remnant of the original inspiration. It reminded me of a non-meatloaf I've made before—I'd never thought to call it haggis!
Vegan haggis, the food of hungry Scots
I enjoyed every bite, but my husband's goulash wasn't as appreciated. An uninspiring plate of rice, potatoes and mushrooms left him wanting more. So we ordered the only vegan dessert, a chocolate nut cake.
I should know better than to order cake in Britain. The British have different ideas about cakes, believing they should be dry and crumbly and heavy. This fit the bill perfectly, but the only thing I enjoyed about it was the chocolate taste once I managed to get a few crumbles on my fork and into my mouth.
It didn't matter, though: the haggis was so filling I had no need for dessert.
For the next night, I had made reservations at David Bann, an upscale vegetarian restaurant just off the Royal Mile on St Mary's. I spent all day walking up and down hills, in and out of the rain, through castles, Georgian houses, and even a twenty minute ride in a whiskey cask (don't ask). I didn't go back to the hotel, so I was a bit tatty when we walked into David Bann's. It didn't matter. It's Scotland, where upscale has a different perspective. We were given a nice table anyway, and offered a bread roll since I looked to be near starvation.
There were several vegan items on the menu, including a nice starter of Thai broccoli and tofu fritters. They turned out to be more like little balls, served with a delightful plum dressing and banana chutney. I could easily have eaten a dozen.
For my main I ordered udon noodles with ginger red pepper sauce and smoky seared tofu. The tofu was very nice, but I see David Bann has no better luck than I do finding firm tofu in Britain. It lacked a bit of bite, though the gingery sauce made up for it.
My husband's Indian dosa, filled with potatoes, chickpeas and broccoli, was flavored very well and made up for the previous evening's plate of humdrum goulash.
For dessert there was only one vegan option, so when I ordered I pointedly said "We'll have the vegan one—the only vegan one." I'm not sure they got the message. As the sole representative of vegan-ness on the dessert menu, it was merely okay—a raspberry jello-like tower over orange drizzle cake with a tiny spoonful of coconut sorbet. Not very satisfying, but fortunately it came after generously sized main meals.
I also paid Henderson's Restaurant another visit for lunch, mainly because I needed a place to get out of the rain and regroup after discovering the Scottish Portrait Gallery was closed. I'm glad I did, because I discovered there was much more than a few tables inside. Two enormous rooms were hidden from the street, but offered a nice ambience, expecially with live piano music playing in one corner. I picked up a tray and ordered soup from the line, and a couple of salads. The soup was excellent: sweet potato and coriander. The salads—a pasta salad and a generous scoop of hummus—were left on my plate, after a few bites convinced me they weren't worth the calories. (I'm not much of a fan of cold salad, so take this with a grain of salt, and add a little to the hummus too.)
It's hard to ruin hummus, but they've somehow managed. (Perhaps they're averse to garlic that far north?)
I didn't get to try Black Bo's, the third vegetarian restaurant on my list. Instead we ate at the hotel, which served a vegetarian Thai curry...strangely, with pappadums, naan bread and mango chutney. Perhaps they need a map to discover that Thailand is not actually part of India. But the pappadums were damn good, so I'm not complaining.
All in all, a vegan doesn't fare too badly in Edinburgh, home of haggis and geographically challenged hotel chefs. And at the seminar, I learned, among other things, that animals have consciousness and feel pain and experience emotions: what more incentive does anyone need to try vegan haggis instead of the other kind?