Manna Restaurant is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in London, a town that does old things really, really well (see "London, Tower of" and "Buckingham Palace", which isn't that old but houses our old queen). And anyone who's read my other blog knows I love old stuff. A lot.
So why wasn't I interested in visiting the oldest vegetarian restaurant in London, thus combining my two loves: vegetarian food and old stuff? If you've ever eaten in an 80s-era vegetarian restaurant in, say, Ohio, you'll understand. Vegetarian food tended to be all about buckwheat and broccoli back then. A nut roast was considered the ultimate in vegetarian innovation. Mushrooms were limited to salads, and most pasta contained elbows. And if you were lucky enough to find a vegan restaurant, the menu would have all the excitement "Braggs Liquid Aminos" could muster. Truffles? Wasabi? Mole? No, your rockin' vegan grandparents were not about to rock their tastebuds with anything more exciting than a clove of garlic.
But vegetarian restaurants have come a long way. And Manna Restaurant in Primrose Hill has evolved right along with our taste in mushrooms. We demand more excitement on our plates than we did in the 80s, and vegan food is as flavorful and satisfying as any cuisine mankind has yet invented. I was delighted to see that the menu at Manna is 100% vegan. They proudly tout plant foods, knowing cashew cream is as pleasing to the palate as the kind that detours through a cow's udder. You won't find Wensleydale on the menu, but you will find prosecco risotto, oyster mushrooms, and balsamic reduction.
We visited Manna recently with two new friends, neither of whom were vegetarian. We all left impressed, and for me, there is extra incentive to return: when I inquired about the ingredients in the cheesecake, our server carried my request to the chef, who issued the reply that I'd have to return five more times in order to be given the secret.
While the cheesecake is reason enough to return to Manna five times, the rest of our meals were also worthy of a second—or sixth—visit.
We were given the choice of ordering from the regular menu or from the Christmas menu, which featured a Truffle and Prosecco Risotto Cocotte and a Sage and Chestnut Wellington. I was tempted, but having perused the online menu, I'd set my heart on the wild mushroom ravioli, a starter available as a main. I stayed the course, and added the Basil and Cashew Cheese Croquettes as a starter. The croquettes were served with homemade chili jam and a lot of tasty leaves. The crisped ravioli were a bit tough, making them difficult to cut into bite-sized portions, but once I managed to get them in my mouth they were delicious. I was particularly interested in the fennel cream sauce, since I'm exploring alternatives to soy cream in my own kitchen, but I suspect any inquiries would have been met with a similar response as when I inquired about the cheesecake.
And can I just rave about the cheesecake? Cranberry and Orange Cheesecake, served with ameretto brittle vice cream and butterscotch sauce—now there's a vice I can easily succumb to. My husband proclaimed it the best cheesecake he's ever had—and he's eaten his share of non-vegan cheesecakes. Our server said it was the chef's own invention; I can understand his desire to keep the recipe to himself, but a masterpiece of this quality deserves to be read. And eaten. By everyone.
If you know any non-vegans who don't believe a cheesecake can be sufficiently delicious without cheese derived from a cow, take them to Manna Restaurant immediately. And tell the chef you're me, so I can get my hands on that recipe. (The scientists at our table were keen to start a Cheesecake Laboratory, modeled after the Cheesecake Factory, in order to get to the bottom of this delicious mystery.)
I heard no complaints from the rest of our party about their meals, either. It's always a risk taking non-vegetarians to an untried vegetarian restaurant: one bad experience could turn them off vegetarian food forever, much the way a bad Japanese restaurant can ruin the idea of sushi. But there was no need to worry about Manna Restaurant. I guess there's a reason they've been around forty years: They do vegetarian (and now vegan) very, very well.
I shall return. Armed with a few discrete laboratory tools to ID the cheesecake ingredients.