Restaurant review: The Honest Vegan, Belfast
336 Lisburn Road, Belfast. Tel: 07912 886475
The vegans are coming. Until a few years ago in Belfast and the broader north, veganism was a marginal lifestyle chosen by people who didn't drive cars and sent their children to school in Crocs and black socks and with mushroom sandwiches.
Veganism was a trickle that then became a trend. It grew into a hardcore ethical movement and more recently it assumed the role of vegetarianism's active service unit. Now it is a muscle-bound force and it's climbing out of the underground ready for action. You know it has entered the mainstream when there's a World Vegan Day (November 1).
The first broadside was fired during the Balmoral Show in May, agriculture's biggest celebration, when bus shelters and street poster sites all over Belfast and Lisburn were covered in hard-hitting messages including: 'Humane milk is a myth. Don't buy it' and 'Eating animals contributes more to climate change than transport'.
Lots of jolly beef and dairy farmers, chicken factory owners and intensive pig breeders scoffed merrily at the canvas-shoed, cotton-wearing vegans as if they were just nut jobs who would go away once they got bored.
But vegans are made of sterner stuff. They have been on the go since the mid-1940s when Donald Watson created the movement in order that people "should live without exploiting animals". He contended that we should have little if anything to do with animals and this ruled out the consumption not just of meat and leather but of eggs, wool and even silk. Vegans have grown in number ever since and they are now gathering on the horizon like a well-oiled, war-hardened battalion preparing to pounce on the meat-eating sector.
Except that the advance party, which consists of half a dozen vegan restaurants, is full of good cooks and convincing dishes which means that reliance on physical protests outside Ireland's livestock markets aimed at talking us out of eating meat and wearing leather goods and downscaling the entire agricultural industrial complex, is reducing.
I used to look patronisingly and kindly on vegans, thinking they were just unloved as children and had developed a collective need to generate attention to themselves later in life. The wider community included hunt saboteurs, anti-fur fashionistas, swampies of all sorts against any kind of road or energy development and they were mostly fuelled by berries, tubers and non-dairy flat whites.
But the arrival of some dodgy political leaders around the world and the dumping of some hard-fought environmental laws and regulations, accords and agreements has meant a re-evaluation of what groups like vegans stand for. Recent global political earthquakes have brought into sharp focus the need to behave ourselves a bit better and to look after the planet. Part of this means taking a look at the meat industry and its environmental impact.
Whatever you think of Watson's assertion in 1944 that people should live without exploiting animals (perceived ideas that raising herds for meat and leather is cruel, that the mass volume chicken industry is an actual fowl hell or that it's healthier to live from plants), the biggest argument for don't-care-hedonists like me was that anything vegetarian, never mind vegan, tasted like shuck muck.
One Saturday afternoon two years ago I was taken very reluctantly by one of the teens into Raw Food Rebellion, a vegan restaurant on the Lisburn Road.
It looked a bit like a badly-funded community centre with hard benches and bare walls. Booths were small, allowing for no stout-bellied farmer types, and there was a whiff of holiness about.
Yet the spiced Mexican sandwich which was brought out to me is something I still remember clearly despite more than one hundred restaurant reviews since. It featured two doorsteps of wheaten bread on which were constructed layers of guacamole, tangy rainbow slaw, pickled red onions and coriander.
It was sensational and the adviser and I made regular return trips. Now it has been taken over by new owners and it's called The Honest Vegan.
This day's special was a Mexican wrap, into which were stuffed hot peppers, mushrooms and onions, and alongside of which was a salsa, some guacamole and sour cream (non-dairy) and probably soy. Excellent, although perhaps not as dazzling as the first visit, the experience was summed up by the accompanying teen who remarked that she felt so much more energetic, uplifted and somehow even cleaner after her noodle salad.
But the flavours and textures are there and if you are a meat-eater and never thought you would find that kind of satisfaction from plants, think again. This is particularly worth a re-evaluation of our outlooks on eating out.
As World Vegan Day approaches, it's time to respect the vegan chefs for developing something not only good for us and the planet, but incredibly, delightfully and surprisingly tasty.
Noodle salad .................................. £7.50
Mexican wrap ................................ £7.50
Apple juice...................................... £1.80
Coffee ............................................. £2.40