Ever found yourself hankering after a plate of red batavia, doenjang and pickles?
Well, neither had I, until a week ago. Since trying out Holland Park’s ‘Flat Three’s new vegan tasting menu, these taste buds have become fluent in the exotic language of vegan Nordic-Korean cuisine.
Like most millennials, I like to ruin any element of surprise upon entering a new restaurant by frantically zomato-ing the menu, googling pictures of the interior, and trip-advisoring the hell out of the reviews. And that’s before leaving the house.
So I was as equally frustrated as I was intrigued when I sat down, ready for my pre-dining stalk, only to find that I couldn’t get past one dish on their website without having to research -or rather translate– at least three of the ingredients. And if I was unsure of what they looked like, I sure didn’t have a clue what they were going to taste like.
The menu wasn’t the only challenge I would face that evening. My equally apprehensive dinner pal and I found ourselves working up some serious appetites as we paced around in what felt like a circle, wondering if hunger and a loss of marbles were connected. Aha – I finally spotted an inconspicuous door with a small sign above it with the welcoming words ‘Flat Three’.
Once you spot it, the restaurant is actually conveniently situated just a stone’s throw away from Holland Park station, but as it’s underground, you can’t see the interior until you enter, and it’s unlikely you’d ever stumble across it by chance.
In fact, it’s details like this which give the restaurant it’s charm. As we were led down a narrow staircase to the basement, I was hit with the paradoxical feeling that I was both the VIP guest of a swanky restaurant and the friend of someone welcoming me into their cosy home.
If the French judge a restaurant based on its bathroom, I judge a restaurant based on its lighting. Want to talk about work and the weather? Light a room with bright, garish lights. Want to instigate deep and intimate conversations in which both parties lose track of time? Stock up on candles. In this case, I was pleased to find the latter; a dimly lit space adorned with candles.
My friend’s eyes widened with appreciation – ‘So this is hygge’. I nodded in agreement whilst internally commending the Scandinavian inspired restaurant for not compromising the high-end feel for comfort.
It was a night of first’s for me. Not only was it my first time trying a vegan tasting menu, but it was actually my first time of experiencing a tasting menu at all.
Despite the fact that more of us are switching our cartons of Wisemans for nut based alternatives, and considering the outreach of campaigns such as ‘Veganuary’ which inspire people to cut down on animal produce, there are still relatively few vegan options in most posh London establishments. Brunches, maybe. Lunches – more likely. But, more often than not, there is a slap-dash feel to the ‘vegan option’, particularly on dinner menus (note: ‘option’. singular).
As head chef Pavel Kanga says, his inspiration came from a distinct lack of inspiration in most eateries, which, he says, usually “take the protein away” from meat dishes and feebly attempt to replicate meat based options.
To counteract this, Kanga and his team have experimented by fermenting, smoking and salting vegetables to conjure up flavours that otherwise would not be possible.
As we sat down, we were given a carafe of white wine to compliment the menu, and I have to say, even alone, it went down easily – too easily. ‘Save it for the food’, I had to remind myself.
I wondered whether the waiting staff would expect us to know anything about the mysterious menu. They didn’t. In fact, they put us at ease by running through each dish as they were brought out. There was no snobbery, just pure excitement about making good quality food.
If Flat Three’s mission is to prove that meat doesn’t necessarily equate flavour, and ‘vegan’ isn’t synonymous with ‘boring’, they’re doing a good job. Light, palette cleansing dishes with beets and currants were delicately balanced between ‘heavier’ dishes containing more grains. I was particularly surprised to find ‘fat hen’ was in fact a leafy green vegetable, and I relished the chance to try this meaty alternative.
After devouring a plate of kabu, kohlrabi, wakame and buckwheat I found myself positively scraping the plate. At this point it’s only fair to reveal my roots, and admit that the experience would have been enhanced had I been given a hefty loaf of crusty bread to mop up the delicious sauces. Because if there’s one thing you don’t want to do, it’s leave a speck of those delicious morsels on your plate.
There were comical moments, such as the point, mid way through our meal, our enthusiastic waiter bounded over holding what he described as the fermented, reproductive seed of a cucumber, and gushing that “people either love or hate this one”. I was actually pretty unphased by this green alternative to marmite, but it was refreshing to see a waiter express such passion for the dishes he was serving.
I am usually the type to scoff down my meal the second it arrives before complaining that I ate too fast, and I was slightly anxious that eating tiny plates of vegetables wasn’t going to be filling at all. To the contrary, I found myself feeling comfortably full, and not at all sluggish like I usually do, by the end of the meal. Perhaps this has something to do with the healthy, quality of the ingredients, most of which the restaurant prides itself on having locally sourced.
So am I a tasting menu convert? Quite possibly. At £69 per person without wine, even if I wanted to, this would never be something I could indulge in more than once annually. And of course, there are days when all you want is a greasy pizza and a beer. But what I did learn from the tasting menu, is that quality really is more important than quantity when it comes to food. With Flat Three’s tasting menu, you find yourself appreciating each mouthful, immersing yourself in a completely new experience, and likely leaving with a few new ingredients you’ll want to add to your shopping list.