Veggie Places Visits St Albans

Someone wrote to us recently bemoaning the lack of veggie friendly places in the area. Always up for a challenge, I got on the phone and started to plan our itinerary. Since St Albans is north out of London, it gave us a good excuse to drop in to Mr Man restaurant in Edgware, which is fast becoming one of my favourites. You can eat like a king at very unregal prices and this is what we did. Our hotel was only about 45 minutes drive from here, on the outskirts of St Albans. The St Albans Thistle hotel is 4* and we got a very good deal for B&B. It was clean, comfortable and cosy plus it had the much needed swimming pool and stress reducing Jacuzzi. I also sampled the beauty treatments - much cheaper than London and better than many smarter establishments. Breakfast disappointed with the cooked offering- no free range eggs or anything special for veggies - but this is quite common and for some reason hotels such as this really feel the need to save a few coppers on the egg bill. However, there was plenty of choice from fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereals, etc so I did not feel too cheated. There is a comfortable lounge with fire which we needed on the freezing cold weekend we stayed.

On Saturday morning we drove into St Albans. It is a very pretty medieval town with many old buildings and cobbled streets that have been well preserved. One feature of the town is the street market, which is huge and has been held here forever; well it was here 30 years ago when I last visited. As well as stalls selling fresh bread, olives, feta in brine and organic preserves, I saw a cheese stall and bought some delicious hand made goat's cheese. There were scores of other stalls selling a huge variety of wares and we easily spent three hours wandering around. But where were the veggie restaurants? We enquired at the Visitor Centre and were sent to a place near the abbey that has just opened.

Lussmanns turned out to be a godsend. This branch is one of two - the older establishment is in Hertford. The restaurant is modern with crisp, smart styling and the glass window enclosing the kitchen enabling you to see food being prepared impressed me further. Service was very good despite being so busy. The food from a short menu is freshly prepared and they are happy to make substitutions if you want a veggie cheese ingredient, for example or if you are vegan. Eggs are free range but the mayo is not; they are trying to source a supply of organic mayo. With a pleasant selection of soft drinks as well as some interesting beers and cocktails and the emphasis being on organic and fresh produce, this proved to be a very good find. The smoking ban added to my enjoyment.

Since we were very near and we needed to walk off our lunch, a visit to the Abbey seemed in order. It is amazing to discover that the Abbey was built soon after the Norman Conquest. As well as admiring the stained glass windows, there is a small exhibition of artefacts behind glass to peruse and one of the most valuable exhibits - solid silver candlesticks - have their own guard. The grounds are grassy and pleasant, but the wind was biting so we did not dwell here for very long.

We had hit lucky with lunch - would supper be a wash out? We tried to phone a vegetarian contact but he was out - probably enjoying a veggie meal at some secret destination. So our old friend serendipity would have to come into play. I would like to say that we did some proper research and came up with several options, but in the event I was asked what my favourite cuisine was, I answered Greek, so Greek it was. Our first choice was fully booked but we were squeezed into our second. On arriving back in St A, we had over half an hour to kill, so we ventured into Café Rouge which was nearby. This has got to be one of the loveliest buildings I have seen for a long while. Art Deco in style, with acres of windows and high, vaulted ceilings. With all the mirrors and candles reflecting off the glass, it is a very atmospheric room in which to while away some time. Despite being fully booked and very busy, they kindly let us stay for just a coffee.

When I first entered Kyriakos Greek Taverna, my heart sank a little. It looked a bit scruffy, the tables were rickety and everyone seemed closely packed together. However, after we had been warmly welcomed and I had had a chance to look at the menu, I began to relax. All the food is home made - very rare nowadays - and there are several specials for vegetarians. We shared some houmous with pitta and spanakopitta. The spanakopitta had been cut from a large pie, which is how it should be made and the houmous tasted of chick peas, rather than garlic, which is more authentic. We both chose Moussaka, which is normally a bit of a joke - something awful bought in from a fast food supplier, complete with soggy water-logged aubergine and cheap cheese sauce - but this version was truly delicious with roasted aubergine and a proper béchamel and yoghurt topping. Accompanying it was a small fresh salad and minted brown rice. We could have pigged out on the baklava to follow, but both of us decided to settle for Greek coffee instead.

Sunday morning was spent doing what Sundays were made for - reading the papers and relaxing with a swim and a couple of treatments in the spa thrown in. The Waffle House sounded interesting however and I was glad we squeezed in at least a peek of it from the outside. Sunday is the establishment's busiest day and when we arrived there were long queues waiting to get in. In a lovely location, incorporating a working water wheel there is a small museum attached (admission free) where one can see old flour making equipment and implements. Access is free but it is not suitable for the disabled or very young children. All children must be accompanied by an adult. The Waffle House is open every day from 10 to 5 in the winter and until 6pm in the summer. Bookings are not taken but to avoid a long wait, it is recommended you arrive before noon for lunch. Failing that, why not arrive a bit earlier and have a brunchy breakfast? Scrambled free range eggs with field mushrooms sound rather tempting. Half the options are vegetarian and the cheese is made using vegetable rennet. Mayonnaise is made from free range eggs. Organic stone-ground flour is used for the waffles from the nearby Redbourne Mill. All the ingredients are as organic as possible, including the salads and vegetables. After you have had your fill here, you can walk along the pleasant River Ver meadows and make your way to the abbey. I can think of few establishments that cater for vegetarians so well. They have another restaurant in Norwich.

We stopped off at Watford on our way back, to pick up some food for supper. Marks and Spencer's there have a take away section where you can get hot veggie food to go as well as a large selection of sandwiches and wraps. After our indulgences over the past two days, we were quite happy to settle for an M& S picnic before we hit the real world again and the M25

Veggie Places - March 2006

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