Some would say being a food writer and a vegetarian is a bit of an anachronism. How can one critique a menu when you are missing out one food group that the majority of people really care about? Well, that’s a debate I might have with you at the dinner table, or at least in a future article, but for now I have been safely dispatched to a restaurant specifically for ‘people like me’, a place billing itself as ‘Vegetarian Paradise’, no less.
Tibits is the product of an unlikely union between three entrepreneurial siblings and a century-old culinary institution. Back in 1998, the Frei brothers won a business competition in their native Switzerland with the concept of a high-class, fast food vegetarian eatery. Lacking any professional catering experience themselves, to turn their vision into a reality they teamed up Rolf and Marielle Hiltl, whose family had founded Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant – Hiltl in Zurich – exactly one hundred years before. After establishing restaurants across Switzerland, in 2008 they opened on London’s Heddon Street, an improbably lovely little offshoot of Regent Street.
With fairy lights strung between the bars and restaurants and some live music playing a few doors down, the street has a lively continental atmosphere, and making the most of an unusually balmy evening, I dined al fresco. Inside, it’s still a far cry from the vibrant, ethnic shabby-chic most vegetarian eateries seem to affect, featuring velvet embossed, plum-coloured wallpaper and jet chandeliers more akin to that of a smart cocktail lounge.
What a novelty to be able to tuck into everything on the menu. All too often in high end restaurants, even today, I am restricted to yet another incarnation of ravioli or tofu, or have to ask sheepishly to have the starter sans pancetta. The menu runs the gamut of popular cuisines – Thai glass noodle salad and green curry, spicy Indian samosas and dhal, spinach cannelloni and Tuscan bean stew for Italy – while every form of grain seems to get a look in with various incarnations of quinoa, millet, barley, wild rice or giant couscous. Indeed, variety is one thing Tibits excels in, meaning even omnivores, which the manager estimates account for around 80% of their customers, will find something that appeals among the restaurant’s 40-plus dishes.
The system of ordering encourages you to try a little of everything. Take a plate and load up buffet-style on the oval ‘food boat’. A mixture of hot dishes, salads, condiments and rolls as well as a few puddings are arrayed on this two-tier nucleus. I, probably mistakenly, did exactly what I do when faced with supermarket salad bars or continental breakfasts in hotels, that is, I enact a frenzied, ill-considered amassing of everything on offer then compress as much as possible onto the plate or tub (many a cashier has raised a mocking eyebrow at my attempt to pass a ‘small’ box, overflowing with a dozen salads, under their nose, mayonnaise leaking onto the conveyer belt and lid threatening to pop open at any moment). For people who are even fussier than us vegetarians, you’ll find labels next to each dish with a lexicon of symbols warning where egg (O), lacto (L), nuts (N), celeriac (S) or gluten (G) ingredients are present. Any wheat-intolerant vegans with a nut allergy will indeed be in heaven, which I’m sure doesn’t happen very often when eating out.
I then proceeded to the bar to have your platter weighed, receive your cutlery and order from a wide selection of juices, hot drinks, wine and beer. It’s £1.95 per 100g at lunch, rising to for £2.15 dinner – great if you’re a frugal, health-kicking sort, for whom this wholesome restaurant is no doubt a big draw, but if you’re greedy and gastronomically-curious like me, paying by weight is a little dangerous.
Since I sampled a good 80% of the dishes on offer, I certainly won’t attempt to detail all the elements of my meal. Overall the food is fresh-tasting, wholesome and filling. It resists the old, flawed accusation that vegetarian food is dull; if anything I’m contending with too many tastes and textures from my multifarious heap of colourful food. Some, like the crunchy dried bean salad and grilled Mediterranean vegetables, are reassuringly nutritious, but then again slightly greasy breaded, fried or pastry-based things feature quite a lot too. Great for discovering new recipes and unusual ingredients, yet it’s in familiar, much-loved dishes such as the cannelloni that the restaurant lets itself down – you know you’ve had better elsewhere, oozing béchamel sauce and thickly crisp with parmesan on top, whereas theirs tastes as though in jumping through too many dietary-requirement hoops it’s missing out on the sheer indulgent pleasure of good ‘guilty’ food.
There’s the rub: in its admirable pursuits of being healthy, fresh, ethical, organic and the rest I can’t help but feel that with Tibits the one thing that falls short is taste; there was so much on offer, yet no individual dish would have impressed me had it been served to me individually in another restaurant.
All in all, I guess I’m not a very ‘veggie’ vegetarian. For a start I find the word veggie inexplicably irritating; also I eat fish (I came to the conclusion cold-blooded, non-furry creatures are different and, well, pan-fried scallops or any form of garlicky, spicy king prawns are just too tasty to omit), definitely own a couple of leather clothing items and am not very good about checking whether the Pecorino in my pesto has been tainted by animal rennet. I love all incarnations of dairy: the weekend doesn’t start for me without a couple of poached eggs on thickly buttered toast, nor a meal complete without a wedge of Brie or Stilton on an onion marmalade-anointed oatcake.
Cast into the mould of a rich dining experience, Tibits falls a little short. However, judging by how bustling it was on a midweek evening, the promise of fresh healthy food served up in an informal yet stylish setting has won plenty of admirers. Come in and grab a take-away salad box at lunchtime, or linger on its terrace soaking up the atmosphere with a post-work glass of wine and some of the buffet’s antipasti offerings. Like me, I think you’ll find its variety, atmosphere and ethos appeals, but also that ‘paradise’ probably tastes slightly more like Heston’s triple-cooked chips or the River Cafe’s chocolate nemesis, even for us veggies.
Tibits Restaurant, 12-14 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4DA. Tel: 020 7758 4110. Website.