WITH Offbeet being the New Forest’s only exclusively plant-based restaurant, and me not being vegan, I had no idea what to expect when I dined there.
The venue is part of The Retreat New Forest, which hosts yoga, pilates, meditation and mindfulness classes and workshops, and is the brainchild of head chef Peter Axworthy.
Offbeet’s contemporary and stylish decor and incredible sense of space made an immediate impression, and I was struck by the abundance of calming plant life adorning the walls and ceilings.
My husband and I were presented with a menu that was relatively small but very imaginative, full of creative and seductive flavor combinations.
We started the evening with a Mother Nature’s Candy Daquiri (the mocktail version) and a pint of Gamma Ray, and while I can’t account for the ale I can say that the daiquiri was better than any mocktail I’ve had. This was not your standard, saccharine drink of artificial syrups, but rather real fruit mixing beautiful sweetness with slight sharpness.
Of the starters, I opted for the king oyster mushroom “scallops” with lemon and garlic butterbean puree, kalamata olive polenta and sous vide candied vanilla cherry tomatoes (£ 12). The dish was beautifully presented, and just as vibrant in flavor as in color.
The tomatoes, which would rival many sweets on the market, were a highlight, cooked to perfection with maple syrup and vanilla pod using the French sous vide method of vacuum packing before being heated to precise temperatures in a circulating water bath.
My dining companion chose the “ricotta” and smoked carrot lox tart with spring onions, red pepper and smoked paprika gel and dill caviar (£ 10), which he enjoyed immensely. I had a taste and, had I not known I was in a vegan restaurant, I would have sworn it was a smoked salmon and cream cheese tart.
It dawned on me then how talented our chef was. Peter has spoken of becoming “obsessed with finding ways to break the vegan food stereotypes and focused on satisfying the taste buds of non-vegans”.
Just one course in and he had already met one of the biggest challenges to a modern-day vegan chef: having fewer ingredients to play with to satisfy the growing group of curious non-vegans wanting to try plant-based cuisine without compromising on taste and flavor – no easy feat.
My main was the aptly named Woodland Walk: salt-baked celeriac steak, sous vide New Forest mushroom and nutmeg potato, with charred shallot, picked celery and rosemary and walnut pate (£ 20).
To accompany I selected a glass of Spanish red, Pagos Del Galir – which after the first taste I vowed to look up as soon as I got home. Deep, rich and with lots of dark fruit on the palate, it was dangerously drinkable.
Before long, another edible work of art arrived, again exquisitely put together and, again, had me frantically referring to my menu to work out each unique flavor.
I’m a big fan of celeriac and this was cooked to perfection, with its soft texture and sweet-salty taste a great accompaniment to the crunchy charred shallot. My only criticism would be that, expecting the delicious celeriac to be the centerpiece, there wasn’t more of it.
My husband selected the New Forest wild garlic infused handmade gnocchi with walled garden fennel tips, nduja pesto, hemp seed pangrattato crumb, “chorizo” pieces and petit “mozerella” (£ 19).
I had to steal some, and it was certainly superior to any gnocchi I’ve ever sampled. It had a golden crispy outer layer encasing a pillowy-soft interior.
I was getting rather full by this point but I’m not one to pass up dessert, so I ordered A Gift of Chocolate: beetroot fudge brownies, vanilla bean tapioca fritter with orange blossom glaze and chocolate ice cream with orange gel and smoked hazelnuts ( £ 10).
The rich and silky chocolate ice cream and buttery hazelnuts were a match made in heaven, although I was less keen on the fritter, which had a sticky texture.
My husband went for A Sort of Cream Tea: juniper and lemon scone, vanilla clotted cashew cream, strawberry and gin milkshake sphere, and lavender infused rhubarb served with strawberry Pimms sorbet (£ 9).
With his plate cleared, he declared his dessert a success, with the exception of the slightly “stodgy” scone.
I had dipped a tentative toe in vegan fine dining, and I can assure all open-minded meat eaters the food at Offbeet was so far from bland, boring or restrictive – quite the opposite, it was a triumph!
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