Confused fast food for the vegetarian in your life at Ethos…

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Ethos is a funny little place.

Set a few minutes back from the overwhelming, cacophonous and painfully-slow-tourist-packed battleground that is Oxford Circus, it beckons you towards warmly glowing windows with a sense of invitation and escape; both of these will be a welcome relief given that on your journey there you’ve most likely been kneecapped by the oversized Primark shoppers that every gaggle of European teenagers seems to come equipped with or had to fight your way through cackling hen parties recognisable by the vast amounts of Claire’s Accessories pink paraphernalia.

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Open seven days a week, Ethos bills itself as being ‘deliciously different’ and with that concise description, I can’t argue. They don’t say completely delicious or totally different which is where, I’m afraid, my earnest debate would have to begin and specializing in both vegan and vegetarian dishes, their trademarks include a ‘pay by weight system’ and a self service environment.

Now if the words ‘self service’ dredge up images of scarred-by-the-hands-of-too-many-Bank-Holiday-travellers plastic trays at any M1 service station or the neon signs of Shaftesbury Avenue’s all-you-can-eat, drippy windowed Chinese buffets, relax. This is actually a point in Ethos’ favour; you don’t have to carry a tray like you’re back at school and waiting for Tuesday’s smiley potato faces to be bestowed upon it. Just grab your plate and pile it high from the vast array of dishes on offer. Some of these you will undoubtedly recognise and dive for, all pointed elbows and focused vision – well helloooo plantains – and some may be as foreign to you as the concept of humility is to Kanye West.

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My suggestion is to be brave and try something new – the flavourful and well textured cheddar & zucchini fritter was my reward for doing just that – but understand that you may not always find the manna from heaven you’re hoping for – yes butternut squash, who really should be as reliable in a vegetarian restaurant as Mel & Sue’s gentle ‘Bake Off’/’Carry On’ humour is each summer, I’m talking to you. A little bit under-cooked and a whole lot under seasoned, chewing it was not a pleasant experience however on the plus side, it was the perfect ying to the yang that apparently was sweet potato fries. Sweet potato crisps would be a more accurate description except then you’ll think I mean something light and crunchy and this review isn’t supposed to be a work of fiction.

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Now to be fair, I can’t tell you everything was bad because it wasn’t. I could have eaten the afore mentioned sweet, sticky and softly delicious plantains out of a nosebag like a greedy, snorty little pony while halloumi bites were every bit as as deliciously salty & appealingly squeaky as you could hope for. Guacamole, hummus and a smoked butter bean dip made me want to stack a separate plate with enough flat-breads to scoop up every last smidgen and the avocado halves stuffed with green salsa were creamy, fresh and luscious.

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Generous slices of banana bread looked fresh & inviting but I never met a brownie I didn’t like the look of so the opportunity to try a gluten free, refined sugar free, vegan version was intriguing. At £3 a pop, it was fairly priced being the size of an average house brick but I’m sad to say it wasn’t something I’d rush back to get my face into again.

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I’m all for making baked goods slightly healthier but I’d still like the taste to be of chocolate or something vaguely, faintly & deliciously wicked. Avocado brownies are a perfect example of how this can be achieved, having been dangerously seductive to me in the past but this, whilst possessing a nice, damp, crumbly texture, unfortunately didn’t taste of anything other than black beans; less of a naughty Tuesday night treat if you will and more of a slap round the face with the leftovers of last week’s Mexican blow-out.

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The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the problem with Ethos is not that it’s completely bad, nor totally without merit; it’s just that the inconsistencies have stayed with me more than anything else. While it’s certainly not the most expensive place to dine, I do think verging on £20 for a single plate of food & an elderflower presse kicks it straight out of the ‘cheap eats’ bracket it often seems to take residence in. Staff are generally friendly but a couple patrolled the floor with the pace of over-zealous mall cops which when coupled with a lot of the seats being super cosy with their neighbours, didn’t make for the most relaxing environment I’ve ever experienced.

I applaud them for coming up with something that offers the hungry folk of central London an alternative to the quintessentially sad Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse, one of several boxed poultry palaces *shudders to herself* or, may God have mercy on your teeth, M&M’s World and I commend them for vegan & vegetarian options, some of which inspired me to see what I could do at home myself. Regrettably though, when there are so many other places that offer sincerely good value for money with food that isn’t described as both ‘excellent’ and ‘tasteless’ in the same sitting, it’s hard to imagine a time when I’d go back because let’s be honest, woman cannot live on plantain alone.

Re-inventing the (pea)nut butter of your sticky fingered childhood with a sumptuous almond adaptation…

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I love to cook. When I’m tense or fretful, time spent in my tiny, cobalt-tiled kitchen soothes me and when I see something that instantly makes me want to run out & get the necessary ingredients, it excites me. Be it lazy weekend cookbook browsing or throwing together something in a post-work pan on a Monday evening, well, exhausted I may be when I begin but after 10 minutes of slicing or sauteing or swirling, I can feel my shoulders relax and the cares of the day slip away into the realm of un-importance.

One of the things I get the most pleasure from is finding a recipe that instantly piques my interest so to do just that and then to combine it with writing? Well, that’s altogether splendid.

Food 52 is a website and online community that I would move into tomorrow if I could. Yup. I’d pack my little virtual suitcase with aprons and wooden spoons, my pasta maker, my champagne saucers and an avocado or two because, well just because.

Their belief that ‘how you eat is how you live’ translates into everything they publish, illustrate and talk about and I absolutely adore it. They make food and the exploration of it seem accessible and relate-able, lovely to look at and luscious to taste, so when they were recently on the lookout for testers for new recipes with coconut, I absolutely leapt at the chance and, not having attempted it before, the opportunity to try making my own nut butter – almond with toasted coconut to be specific – was an absolute winner.

A warning about the outcome of this recipe from Emily of www.nourishing-matters.com – it’s a seriously grown up take on the peanut butter you think you know. Velvety, decadent & luxurious, it tastes like it should be the result of hours spent toiling in the kitchen a la Betty Draper but in reality, you’ll need nothing more than the ability to hit ‘go’ on your food processor, leaving plenty of time to daydream about an elegant plate of creamy, nourishing, butter slathered toast or a bowlful of hot milky porridge, the butter spooned on top. Read More

Lobster rolls to gorge on in your own corner of Soho hosted east coast USA…

Darling readers, hello. I must jump right in on this beautiful summery afternoon and ask you what far flung corners of the world can be found on your must-visit-must-eat list? Plates of spicy chorizo & blushing prawns among the tapas of Barcelona? Authentic cocoa-spiced mole & hand-made yellow corn tacos in Mexico City? Fresh flavoured, clean lined, elegant fish from the Scandinavian coast?

Sensational as they all sound – and really, I am sincerely up for accompanying you to all of the above plus any other international spots you fancy feasting at –  for me, east coast USA has long held a place on my own global-dining wish list. A work colleague recently jolly-holidayed in Boston & New England and I nearly died of food envy upon hearing his tales of white sandy bonfires, seafood so fresh it practically swam to your plate & bowls of chowder so warm and creamy you’d happily bob around using saltine crackers as a deliciously nibble-able flotation device…

Well now, thanks to the kind folk at Smack Lobster, we can all our own piece of white-shuttered-beach-house Americana without needing to undertake the purgatory of an 8 hour flight wedged into a screaming baby, overweight passenger, dehydrated food laden plane…

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Smack Lobster is the kid sister of Burger & Lobster, a restaurant group where the only decision required of you to make is literally ‘Burger…or lobster?’ The ideology behind Smack – named after the type of boats used to catch lobsters incidentally rather than an invitation to get into a claw-fight with your dinner – is that lobster isn’t something to be reserved only for fat cats with deep pockets, and I can absolutely lay testament to that fact; for a mere 10 of your hard earned pounds, you can gorge yourself on the type of beautiful, fast, fresh food that you’ll remember long after the last smears of mayo have been licked from your fingers.

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Smack can be found in 2 helpfully central London locations with their main restaurant on Binney St near Bond St tube and their deli spot on Dean St in the heart of Soho; on this occasion we were headed for a Pixar Picturehouse date after eating, so it was the second that we headed towards after work on the sort of gloriously bright evening that warms both the skin & the soul.

First thing first, this is a small location so leave your cat at home because kids, there’s no room to swing it. That said, after faux-casually stalking a couple finishing off their rolls in the window of this joint, J & I were seated after only a few moments wait and really, if you’re after something quick to be eaten al fresco or on the run, this place will totally see you right. A large open window on the side was a nice touch with a bench outside where lobster-diners were also happily perched.

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Like its big brother, Smack has a small menu – lobster rolls or lobster salad. Now I love avocado & cous cous as much as the next gal but there was no way anything other than brioche rolls were being ordered on this visit…I had a Hamptons-esque daydream to bring to life after all. Out of 5 options, J and I opted for the California & the Seven Samurai, leaving the Original, the BLT and the Mexican for another time.

The California (below) combines lobster meat with fresh lettuce, juicy cherry tomatoes, wafer thin cucumber slices and a surprisingly light avocado-lime mayo, all of which lie nestled under a scattering of chives. The whole thing was gorgeously creamy without being overly rich and the luscious avocado mayo paired with generous hunks of fat, smooth lobster meat transported me – I was no longer in the streets of W1, I was sat atop a washed-ashore piece of driftwood, listening to the roar of the Atlantic and devouring coral coloured lobster meat, one gluttonous mouthful at a time while the latest Tommy Hilfiger ad campaign cavorted preppily around me…

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If everything about the California carried me, ironically, to the eastern US seaboard, then the Seven Samurai bore me straight to the Far East. Pairing lobster with Japanese mayo, shredded white cabbage, sliced cucumber, pickled ginger, spring onion slivers and togarashi, a Japanese spice made traditionally with chili & pepper, this roll possessed all the beautiful clean flavours that come with Japanese cooking plus a suggestion of heat from the ginger and the spice. The togarashi, as lovely to look at as it was to taste, was new to me but something I’ll be seeking out to throw on future home-made dishes as a change to my time-honoured dusting of everything with smoked paprika.

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A word of praise for the brioche which was every bit as glossy, sweet & soft as you’d imagine; a gentle toasting of the outer sides made for a nice contrast in texture to the rich but low in fat & high in protein lobster within it. Melted butter and velvety mayo accompaniments aside, there’s a lot to be said for adding this crustacean to your diet, especially if you’re made of stronger stuff than I am and can forego those sumptuous brioche buns.

Smack work with a specific group of Nova Scotia fishermen for as much of the year as possible, sourcing from Maine only when out of season there. Every lobster they use is wild when caught and kept in the best conditions possible until it’s delivered fresh each day to their restaurants. They also work closely with the Canadian government ensuring that they stay positively within sustainability laws.

If you’ve always thought that lobster was something to be had in white-linen-and-gleaming-silverware restaurants only, if you’ve wondered how you could afford to introduce it to your diet or if you’re after something a bit fresh, a bit different and a lot exciting for your dinner tonight, then good news…Smack’s open till 1opm.

Race you to that window seat….