Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review – Delightful dining that ticks all the right (veg) boxes

Vegan caramel slice - Henderson's Edinburgh
Vegan caramel slice - oh yes please!

Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review - "Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such 'vital' ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter?"


Hello.  My name is Chris. I, I recently went out for an entirely vegan meal.  And... erm… I very much enjoyed it.  There, I've admitted it!  You're possibly wondering how someone who purports to love dining, and writing about the experience, could seemingly be so jokingly reticent about a dinner that happens to feature no animal-derived produce?  I shall try to explain.

Back in my youth I was vegetarian for several years and, because of an inaccurate assessment that I might have an intolerance to dairy products, vegan for several months.  This was a time when the range of vegan ingredients, and recipes that guided how best to utilise what was available, seemed much more limited than today. And consequently, I did struggle with a vegan diet.
 
Fast forward to the present, and the currently vogueish movement described as ‘clean eating’ has gained substantial interest, as well as some not insignificant criticism.  And whilst not exclusively focused on veganism, the diet does feature in several books and websites that enthusiastically promote the eating of ‘clean’ food.

However, all this being said, when JML and I arranged to dine with a couple of friends, one of whom is a vegan, Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, seemed like the obvious choice.  Yet still little doubts crept into my mind. Would the food be sufficiently appetising?  Might the venue be a veritable temple where beautiful types who wished to eat themselves ‘clean’ came to worship?  I need not have been concerned on either count.

Cauliflower "steaks" and mushroom and peppercorn sauce - Henderson's Edinburgh.
Tasty cauliflower 'steaks' with mushroom & pepper sauce.
Formerly a bistro forming part of the larger Henderson’s warren-like restaurant/deli/takeaway premises, this particular part of the establishment has been exclusively vegan since 2015. Walking through the door, ‘veganist’ preconception number one was immediately shattered, as the cosy restaurant displayed no trace of being perfumed by incense, scattered with organic bean bags, or sound tracked by whale song. Instead, we were greeted by a casually-trendy, Scandi-Scottish space featuring Nordic-inspired furniture, funky tweed-upholstered banquets, and ‘crazy-paving’ parquet.

So, the restaurant may have achieved a big tick for style, but might that be concealing a menu that was as dull as the vegan cooking of my student days? I shall let what we were served answer that particular clichéd, veganist question.  JML and our friend JW both started with the soup of the day, which happened to be roast red pepper and butternut squash, accompanied by sourdough bread. Rich, smooth and hearty this was really flavoursome, with the sweetness of the roast veg being highlighted by the addition of an earthy hint derived from delicate spices. The sourdough was very good too, whether baked on the premises or bought in.

Vegan haggis - Henderson's Edinburgh
Tasty haggis - meat free.
As our dining conversation centred on music, I shall refer to the fourth member of our group as Siouxsie, who began with a dish of oblongs of crispy grilled polenta – nicely seasoned and possibly enhanced with a pinch of paprika – accompanied by a generous serving of garlic-tastic tofu aioli, which was as creamy and flavoursome as any equivalent made from non-vegan ingredients.  If the soup and polenta were good, I think the real star of our entrées was my freekeh (a cracked and roasted young green wheat for those not in the know) salad, with kale, butternut squash, pear, grapes, and almond flakes, all doused in a cumin-maple dressing.  This dish – which Siouxsie also chose as bathtub-sized main – was a superb take on the Middle Eastern culinary art of contrasting sweet, savoury, and multitudinous textures.  I would gladly make a return visit for this dish alone.

So we were clearly off to a very promising start with – appropriately enough – our starters, but would our meat-free mains be equally impressive?  JW and JML were again in synchrony with their choice of haggis and root mash with red wine gravy and chantenay carrots.  This was a dish that both looked and tasted terrific. Rather than using some non-descript vegetable protein that tried to be a facsimile of flesh, the haggis was pulse-based, which gave it a pleasant texture whilst still retaining the spicy flavour base to be found in 'normal' haggis, and it was an approach that really worked.  The root mash combined with a deeply flavoursome wine-based sauce were the perfect accompaniments to the haggis, with the sweet carrots providing further, tasteful gilding.

Siouxsie agreed with my assessment that the ‘freaky’ salad was just as delicious served as a main, even if her portion could have easily fed a small family.  My choice of principal dish may have subconsciously resulted from the only overt mention of something meaty on the menu.  The cauliflower 'steaks' – though in no way carnivorous – were delicious, consisting of a couple of slabs of perfectly roast brassica that were further enhanced through subtle addition of spice, either cumin or fennel in this case. Accompanied by a mushroom and peppercorn sauce that was so tastily creamy it was hard to believe there was no dairy involved in its production, and freshly pickled red cabbage, which provided a lovely fresh acidity, this was a great dish.

Avocado and lime cheese cake - Henderson's Edinburgh.
Avocado and lime 'cheese' cake - who'd have thought?
Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such 'vital' ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter? Well that would be another veganist cliché busted, as the three sweets we ordered proved this certainly was not the case. Chocolate nut cake – as the name might suggest – was moist, nutty and packed a cocoa-laden punch, made all the more lovely by the accompanying vanilla ice 'cream' (which I assume might have been soya based).  The caramel slice had a nicely crisp – possibly oatie – base, topped by a gooey wedge of toffee-flavoured fondant. Possibly a wee bit denser than a 'school-dinner classic' version, but not diminished by that fact at all.  Avocado and lime 'cheese' cake was a revelation. Silky smooth, but again with an oatie base crunch, the balance of spiky lime and the grassy creaminess of the avocado was as satisfyingly rich as any traditional cheesecake I have encountered, and nicely complemented by a tangy fruit coulis.

Finishing our meal by supping some excellent espressos, we mulled over how enjoyable our food had been, as well as the very palatable glasses of Rioja, and excellent organic cider and perry we had variously chosen to accompany our meal.  And mention was also made of the friendly and efficient service, too. 

I must confess that in places this review has pandered to stereotypes on what it means to eat vegan. Purposely so.  All too often, those of us who choose to eat animals or their products view those who don’t with ignorant curiosity, dismissiveness, or a mixture of both. Yet the politics behind abstaining from consuming animals – in whatever form – cannot be ignored. At the very least there must be an acceptance that, with a changing global climate, and an ever-expanding global population, deriving nutrition substantially from animal sources is utterly unsustainable.  Those eating vegan are usually more than aware of this. Maybe it's time those of us who aren't vegan put aside our prejudices, and gave such issues more consideration.

Whatever the politics, judging by our experience, a vegan meal at Henderson’s is as memorable as it is delicious.  The place most definitely holds its own amongst non-vegan equivalents. So much so that I hope to be a regular visitor.

Food  8/10
Drink 8/10
Service 7.5/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a trendily relaxed bistro.  

Henderson's Vegan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Henrick’s Bar & Bistro, Edinburgh – Pre-theatre dining that misses the final act

(Not so) cripsy pork belly, ginger glaze, spring greens, Henrick's Edinburgh.
Henrick's Edinburgh: ginger glazed pork belly - no crackling...

Henrick's, Edinburgh review - "My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with 'rustic' oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse."


I’ve often maintained that eating is as much a cultural experience as it is about sustenance.  After all, few things can be as social as sharing a meal with friends or family.  Likewise, a particular regional, or national cuisine can be highly representative of the culture from whence it originates.  Given the cultural resonance of food, it’s probably unsurprising then that JML and I quite often like to combine going out for a meal with a visit to a comedy show, the cinema, or the theatre.

This was recently the case when we decided to travel across town to take in Anita and Me at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre.  If only JML had realised the production wasn’t in fact a play but a musical before he booked the tickets.  Somewhat surprisingly, he can’t abide musicals…

So, before taking our seats in the stalls, we decided to also take in an early dinner.  Now there is no shortage of eateries in the Tollcross / Bruntsfield districts of Edinburgh – quite the reverse in fact – but having read a favourable write up in the press, JML suggested we try Henrick’s Bar and Bistro, not least because it was a couple of minutes’ walk from the venue, and therefore well used to catering for the pre-theatre dining crowd. With recollections of having had a decent meal there years ago, I agreed this seemed like a good call.

Occupying double fronted premises on the ground floor of a Victorian tenement, the interior of Henrick's is quite architecturally impressive, sporting high, corniced ceilings, a handsomely imposing bar, and dark, wood-panelled walls. All nicely balanced by neutral paint shades, complimentary dark leather furniture, and stripped wooden floors. Welcomingly alluring.  "But enough with the World of Interiors, what's the scran and swallie like?", I hear you ask.

Brocolli and goats' cheese tart - Henrick's Edinburgh.
Tasty broccoli and goats' cheese tart.
Now, whilst the venue offers a two-course pre-theatre menu - pretty good value at £12.50 - we decided to go for the new, Spring al a carte option. First course arrived in quick time, just after bottles of sparkling water and very quaffable Rioja found their way to our table.  I was sorely tempted by the goats’ cheese tart, but was pipped to that post by JML.  It transpired to be a solid choice, with the (just) crisp pastry base being filled with an appealing combination of greenery in the form of tender broccoli and spring onion, and a richly flavoured caramelised onion and chilli jam. The fresh, yet savoury, goat's cheese that wasn't too overpowering, and the dish came dressed with a pleasant Balsamic glaze. ­ A decent curtain-up effort.

My peppered mackerel mousse consisted of a couple of quenelles of creamy fishy pâté, atop dollops of grapefruit salsa, with 'rustic' oatcakes. It was nice enough, but I would maybe expect a little more citrus zing from the salsa as a counterpoint to the rich, smoked-peppery fish flavour from the mousse.  Plus, fine as the oatcakes were - and I stand to be corrected here - they seemed to be more mass-produced than rustic.  And I am not sure that the limp rocket garnish brought much to the dish.

Peppered mackerel mousse and oat cakes - Henrick's, Edinburgh.
Peppered mackerel mousse.
Now much as I love hake - pan fried with an oriental twist on Henrick's Spring menu - I adore pork belly in equal measure.  There is something utterly irresistible about a slab of slow cooked porcine loveliness, all crisp on top and meltingly unctuous beneath. So I was salivating with anticipation at the arrival of a main course of slow cooked pork belly in a ginger glaze.  Did my eager anticipation turn out to be well placed?


The accompanying mashed potato was smooth-ish and creamy, and the spring greens - though I don’t think mange tout is locally seasonal - were cooked just to point with a nice basting of salty soy sauce. The pork belly was "fine", to coin an adjective again. The meat was tender enough but, where there should have been a layer of crackling, there was no crispness present whatsoever.  The sticky ginger glaze, whilst flavoursome, was maybe a little too sweet and lacking in astringency to properly balance the richness of the meat. Rightly or wrongly, memories of my father's pressure-cooked pork belly in Homepride Cook-in-Sauce sprang to mind - Dad, if you're reading this, it was pretty cutting edge for 1976, honest...

Always one for a nice steak, JML struck lucky when he spied an 8oz fillet of prime Scottish beef on the menu.  "Cooked to your preference" - which in JML's case is medium rare.  A suitably enticing-looking slab of meat was served, together with nicely crispy/fluffy chips, juicy roast tomatoes, and a creamily rich sauce laden with citrusy-spicy pink peppercorns.  It scored a tick as decent pub grub, except for the fact that the steak wasn't quite as JML preferred. It was much more medium than medium rare.

To draw the review of our pre-theatre dining to a close, I'd love to tell you about our pudding choices of JML’s chocolate brownie and - one of my particular favourites - rhubarb and apple crumble.  Alas, this isn't possible. Despite the fact we ordered our desserts 35 minutes before curtain up, we had to leave empty mouthed after half an hour, or risk missing the start of the first act.  To be fair our splendid glasses of tawny Port did arrive promptly, and the very amenable front of house staff were effusively apologetic and knocked the puds off the bill as soon as we said we needed to pay.

Fillet steak and chips, Henrick's, Edinburgh.
Nice fillet steak - more medium than m-rare.
So, to draw on the theatrical theme, the plot summary for Henrick's:  Despite the flash bar, its more cosy than cutting edge.  It's a venue that is obviously popular - by 6.45pm on a Friday every cover was taken, which is maybe why the kitchen had a bit of a (lack of) pudding moment to itself.  It serves decent enough pub grub, though by our experience I think the inclusion of "bistro" in its title might be pushing it a wee bit.  And whilst I recognise that every restaurant can have a bit of an off night, if one of your key customer bases is the pre-theatre crowd, you must be able to get your - certainly not cooked to order from scratch - puds out to punters before the curtain goes up.







Food – 6.5/10
Atmosphere –7/10
Service – 6/10 (N.B. generally very good service, bar the missing puddings)
Value – 7/10

Ambience - expect a pleasant bar/restaurant serving decent pub grub fare. 


Henricks Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hake, tomato & anchovy-stuffed olive roast – happy recipe & ingredient tinkering!

Hake, cherry tomato, & anchovy-stuffed green olive roast
Tomato and anchovy olive hake-bake.

Hake, tomato & anchovy-stuffed olive roast recipe - "The pimentón imparts a lovely wood-fired spiciness.  Rather than Nocellara olives, my version of the recipe uses Spanish green Manzanilla olives stuffed with anchovy puree.  This brings a wonderful, subtle seafood umami flavour to the dish but doesn't overpower the flavour balance at all."


When it comes to recipes, and cook books for that matter, I've always been a bit of a magpie. I love perusing and using them to discover how other enthusiastic cooks and foodies have combined familiar, and not so familiar, ingredients to make an enticing dish.  I remember as a child thumbing through the volumes of my parents' Supercook magazine collection, reading in wonderment the instructions on how to prepare, what seemed in the 1970s, seemingly exotic meals.  As a student, I used to snip recipes from the Sunday supplements and save them in scrapbooks for future reference. Nowadays, I can just as easily do such snipping online, of course. Yet I still love turning and gazing at the pages of cookbooks both new and old.

Now I'm not sure if it's down to my scientific background, but much as I savour a good recipe, it's not often I don't think about having a wee tinker with it.  The thought "I wonder what it would taste like if..." frequently pops into my head.  Usually my experimentation is subtle; I might substitute Rosemary with Thyme, or add a further - hopefully complimentary - spice or vegetable to the mix of ingredients.  Sometimes things go well, sometimes they are not so successful, but I like to think my tinkering never produces any total disasters.  And truth be known, I suppose it's through exactly this process that the multitude of variations in such standards as, say, pasta Bolognese, or fish pie, come into existence.

A successful example – at least to my taste buds – of my ‘freestyling’ involves a super, yet straightforward, recipe I happened across in this year’s Olive magazine calendar.  It’s for a tray roast involving cod wrapped in Parma ham, and cooked with cherry tomatoes and Nocellara green olives. A cinch to cook and, as both JML and I agreed, delicious and quite healthy to boot.  But when I thought about cooking it again a few days later, that little voice inside my head piped up “I wonder what it would taste like if it the emphasis was a bit more Spanish than Italian?”…

El Cartel, Edinburgh, restaurant review: Mexican flavours with definite street cred

Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
El Cartel, Edinburgh - Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.

El Cartel, Edinburgh review - "Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order.  So first up was Guacamole National.  Now you are probably thinking 'mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice'. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions.  A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips."


If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking.  Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach.  A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next.  Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not...

I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer.  A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I'm not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.

Frozen margarita.
Fabulous frozen margarita.
It's probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street.  Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants - including Wahaca and Topolabamba -  purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals - having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant - is Thistle Street's El Cartel.  Being only an (avocado) stone's throw from JML's work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel's "own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food", so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.

I'm glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn't take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available.  Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus.  And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails.  The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze...

Baja fish tacos - El Cartel.
Baja fish tacos.
This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it's recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more.  The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos - hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos - literally "little cravings" in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.

Hearty spring eating - Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart, chickpeas, peppers and olives

Spanish-inspired stew with lamb hearts, peppers, chickpeas and olives.
Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart and chickpeas.
The transition from late winter to early spring can be a bit of a disorientating time of year.  In terms of weather - and I speak here as a Scot - one minute clear blue skies and bright sunshine hint of a glorious summer that is, hopefully, to come. Yet within an hour or two the wind changes direction, leaving the populace shivering in horizontal sleet.

Cooking and eating at this time of year can be equally hit and miss, especially when trying to use seasonal ingredients. On one hand there can be a longing to dine on fresh, green produce, but it's usually still too early in the season in late February or early March for many spring crops to be making any sort of meaningful appearance. On the other hand, days are still quite short and nights can sometimes be frosty, perpetuating winter-time yearnings for hearty meals.

At a time when fresh, local ingredients can be limited, it's sensible to make best use of what is available. And if you are a meat eater one thing that is synonymous with spring is lamb. Make mention of cooking with this delicious meat and most people automatically think of a roast leg, slow cooked shoulder, or grilled chops. Smashing as all these joints may be, my northern English heritage possibly makes me a wee bit more adventurous.  After all, as a child I was no stranger to the delights of cheap, cheerful and flavoursome cuts such as tripe, chitterlings and trotters.

I remain an adventurous omnivore to this day, even though JML and I are attempting to cut down on our meat consumption for a number of ethical and environmental reasons.  And I heartily agree with the ethos of Fergus Henderson - chef, restaurateur, and author of Nose to Tail Eating - that if we are going to kill an animal for food, we should make use of as much of it as possible. Basically, as Fergus maintains, "You should be nice to your offal".  All of which leads me to this recipe for a Spanish-inspired stew featuring chickpeas, olives, peppers, and lamb hearts.

I actually can't remember how the original recipe for this Hispanic-influenced casserole came to my attention, but it's a dish I have been regularly cooking, and refining, for years. It's straightforward, economical, and - most importantly - very tasty, combining the earthy flavours of chickpeas and cumin, sweetness of red peppers, fried onions and tomato, umami notes provided by mushrooms and olives, and subtle spiciness originating from smoked pimentón (paprika), thyme and a pinch of dried chilli.  Left to feature just the above ingredients it's a hearty vegan dish.  Sometimes however I like to add chunks of chicken thigh or pork shoulder to give things a meatier twist. So why not lamb hearts as well?