I quiver with excitement whenever I see that a new chain restaurant has jumped on the vegan bandwagon. I can’t help it; not only does it fill me with hope for a future where I can order a meal quickly, easily, and without a deep seated sense of embarrassment, but it also signifies a changing of the tide and a ‘mainstreaming’ of that which was potentially seen as something radical – in the world of capitalism, if you will pay for it, they will provide.
And whilst I usually prefer to go to an independent restaurant, sometimes you do inevitably find yourself back at those familiar haunts, flooded with the smells and memories of trauling round shopping centres with your mum in your teens. You know the places: Pizza Express, Ask Italian, Wagamamas etc. etc.
So last year when Pizza Express announced it was launching a vegan offering, I was genuinely excited. I love pizza, but i’ve found that a lot of pizzerias tend to be pretty purist with their ingredients (fair enough) and don’t like to branch out to dairy-free cheese alternatives; not a single pizzeria in Leeds city centre does, in fact. Now a cheeseless pizza can be amazing, but it just isn’t the same no matter how hard I mmm and ahhh and try to ignore the mozzarella hanging out my friend’s mouth across the table. I just miss it. On the other hand, some vegan cheeses can be a bit weird as well, and so finding one that you like can take some doing: some don’t melt, some melt too much, and some just taste and smell like a thousand packets of Quavers being opened simultaneously. At home we use Violife cheddar, which I’d recommend, but I haven’t quite gotten to the stage where I take a portion and a grater out with me in case of emergency.
Pizza Express’ vegan menu then was a real gap in the market, and if their menu and cheese were good, my ever burning need for pizza could be conveniently sated across the nation. I swear, they are everywhere – in Leeds, there’s 3 in a 1 mile radius! Outside of the city, coming from a very small town myself, I’ve often remarked that you know you’ve made it as a small town when you’ve got a Pizza Express; you’ve transcended your humble beginnings and have made it to ‘continental chains’ (Daventry, my hometown, still doesn’t have one).
So the vegan cheese on offer at Pizza Express is actually pretty good. It certainly melts, almost into a liquid puddle, and has a strong but not overpowering flavour. They have one ‘as sold as’ vegan pizza on the menu, usually some variation on artichokes or asparagus (depending on the season), and you can apparently swap the cheese onto any of their pizzas in their wider menu. But this is where your limitations begin to sneak in… many of their vegetarian pizzas rely on goats cheese or a stronger cheese like grana padano, balanced with sweetness from mandarins or caramelised red onions, and to be honest, this just does not taste that good with the vegan cheese and ends up feeling a bit like you’e eating a tart, rather than a good ol’ slice.
I have no idea whether you can swap the cheese into the pasta dishes – that would be pretty cool, although a lot of the veggie ones are based around cream it seems – but it’s if you don’t want a pizza when you run into some difficultly. When consulting the menu last there (we’d got one of those ‘high street vouchers’ for christmas and naturally spent it on food), I saw that out of their 4 salads there was only one veggie option, and despite it also not having any cheese in it was confusingly still not labelled vegan. After enquiring, the waitress came back armed with a folder of dietary information and told me that all of the dressings they use contain egg, which I personally find a bit weird… even when I ate eggs, I wouldn’t have thought to put one in a dressing necessarily. I earnestly asked if the chefs could whip me one up – I make dressings myself, it’s literally 3 ingredients and 30 seconds! – but I was told that wouldn’t be possible as they can’t make anything not already on the menu. Mmm. Would I like chilli oil? Yes, usually by the gallon, but not on this. I wanted something fresh, and considered, and inevitably, I left feeling a little disappointed having had no other option than to eat the one vegan pizza that i’ve had quite a few times.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say without sounding too moany is that until chains make the effort to fully veganise their menu (and by that I mean have at least one vegan option of each type of food – a pasta, a pizza, a salad etc.) OR are able to utilise their chefs and have some flexibility beyond the parameters of the set dishes, it’s looking like a pretty restricted choice still. I mean, come on; you know things aren’t right when a vegan can’t eat a bloody salad…