March 8 2014

Pig review: Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen

Now that the grooviest chefs in the kitchens of Bath’s best restaurants increasingly offer a splendid array of face-free dishes designed to appeal to all-comers and not just the committed anti-carnivores, I often choose a vegetarian dish over a “deconstruction” of whatever hoof, trotter or smoked, pulled limb is currently trending on the food fashionista charts right now because to me, what a chef can do without meat is often more interesting than what he or she does with it. Also – if one cares about these things – vegetarian dishes will always be, by their very nature, fashionable in the true sense of the word, being wholly subject to the whims and vagaries of the seasons and totally reliant on the price and accessibility of local produce – and that, to me, is exciting. And, partly as a result of all these machinations but largely due to his inimitable skills, so too are chef Richard Buckley’s menus.

Richard bought the highly-acclaimed, iconic vegetarian restaurant demuths from its original founder Rachel Demuth last year, leaving Rachel free to concentrate on her lovely, lively Vegetarian Cookery School and associated projects, and giving himself and his team the onerous task of rebranding, revitalising and (gently) reinventing a long-established Bath institution. While Richard got busy in the kitchen, his business partner Helen Wilshire set about doing all that difficult “new broom” stuff, artfully retaining the essence of what so many people loved about demuths (think, stylish, breezy, cafe-style diner, all low-key chic and minimalist glamour) whilst cleverly adding a fresh new flavour to proceedings, including a lively new name: welcome, Piggies, to the Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen. Today, this charming, welcoming contemporary bistro is one of those places where you could happily pop in for a speedy workday refuel, linger long over a sumptuous supper a deux or party on with friends; it is not, however, one of those dull, tub-thumping, holier-than-thou vegetarian restaurants of days gone by – if you expect a side order of sanctimony with your celeriac or a self-righteous mission statement to digest over your difestif, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you’d like to know what’s happening right here, right now on the vegetarian chef-led calendar, you’ve most definitely come to the right place.

The Pig most recently visited the AVK to sample Richard’s seasonal Tasting Menu, as flaunted on a semi-regular basis. Our selection celebrated the First Shoots of Spring and – at £35 for five courses (or £55 to include a very generous wine flight) – proved to put a spring in a bank balance flattened by the winter blues too. We feasted on a prandial excursion that included crunchy purple sprouting broccoli served with a pool of sublimely creamy hazelnut butter and sweet/sour rhubarb chutney; a brace of new season’s carrots complemented by roast lemon and white been puree, buckwheat and wild garlic; and cutesy baby cauliflowers cooked (or not) in various ways and teamed with an utterly delightful cauliflower pannacotta (no, I’d never even considered such a thing either. But now I have, I’ll never look upon my least favourite dessert in the same way again). But for me, it was the roast smoked field mushroom glossed with a rich fungi demiglaze and accompanied by salt baked celeriac puree, a mini baked potato and cavelo nero shoots that delivered the evening’s “swoon” moment. This plate alone was a dish that I know already I’ll remember for many months to come. I could smell the enticing aromas the moment the ensemble came out of the kitchen, and can still recall it’s multi-faceted charms days later: a powerful, seductive blast of umami, rich but sweet, strong but delicate. Oh okay, the chocolate tart that brought the curtain down on our menu was gorgeous too, as were the wines that accompanied each course, and the staff that delivered the experience to our table. Heck, it was all just lovely – so there.

Have I waxed too lyrical for your tastes? I don’t care! I want you to try AVK for yourself and love it like I do! And I want you to know, like I do, that you don’t need meat in order to make your meal complete. And I want Richard and Helen to do really, really well, because they’re already doing really good things really well, and deserve to thrive.

I’m going to put pressure on AVK to become Pig members. I’m going to sign them up for a Pig Guide Supper Club. And I’m going to end this review resorting to a really lazy cliché: mighty oaks from little acorns grow – and Richard Buckley is a mighty good chef indeed. 

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