Asparagasm at the White Rabbit
Under east London railway arches, an ambitious new form of banquet was laid out on a Friday night. There were no hocks of ham or ermine-clad Kings chomping on great flanks of flesh, instead Asparagasm chefs produced an entirely vegan and gluten-free five-course menu, accompanied by vegan cheeses and wine. It was an excellent opportunity to address that old culinary question: can vegans really eat as tastily as their omnivore brethren? The Upcoming headed down to masticate over the issue.
The event, run in conjunction with the well-established Disappearing Dining Club, was the brainchild of organiser Kate Lewis. A committed vegan with a career in restaurant PR, Kate had long wanted to experiment with nights of vegan dining. Asparagasm is the realisation of this ambition, there was a launch event in July, and Friday was its first proper incarnation.
Guests were welcomed to the venue, The White Rabbit off Shoreditch High Street, with a potent Green Beast cocktail: absinthe and lime juice with a thin slice of cucumber. It was a good choice, the sharp lime strong enough to balance the vigour of the spirit, and the colour melding nicely with the night’s theme.
Standing and supping gave us time to gaze around the interior, which was highly characterful. The personal passion behind the event was visible in the myriad creative touches adorning the venue. Green light bathed everything, and against the back wall a vast projector screen displayed strange, shifting, hazy images, drawn from diverse cultures and mythologies. The visuals were provided by Lemonade and Laughing Gas, which turned out to be an eccentric event design company, and not the evening’s second cocktail as we had been hoping. To the left of the screen, a large alcove displayed a collection of sexually suggestive vegetables.
Gradually the crowd drifted towards the long, candlelit tables. Asparagasm attracted a friendly and interesting mix of people. There were some hardened vegans, with a scattering from vegetarian charities such as Meat Free Mondays. At the other end of the spectrum, meat-lovers were drawn by an admirable curiosity to try something entirely different to their regular fare. But perhaps most common were couples in which one long-term veggie had dragged along their meat-munching other half.
A team of chefs led by Jason Loveridge, who is certainly no vegan bravely undertook a new challenge in designing the night’s menu. Jason’s creations were drawn from diverse culinary cultures, but the early courses were largely west European – a difficult task considering the customary centrality of meat and dairy products.
First up was an Italian white onion soup, which was flavoursome but slightly thin –we battled the temptation to yearn for a thickening dollop of Gruyère cheese.
The starter was followed by an assiette of English carrot, showcasing the vegetable in a variety of forms: shaved, pickled, puréed and whole. The whole baby carrots were a little under salted, but their crunchy texture was a satisfying complement to the purée. The highlight of the medley in flavour terms were undoubtedly the pickled slices, an explosion of tangy and citrus flavours that came as an invigorating surprise following the slight blandness of the other three forms.
The next course was the most ostentatiously luxurious – puy lentil, root vegetable and truffle ragout. The shavings of truffle were generously applied, but even they couldn’t quite bring the dish to life. By this point, our taste buds were beginning to feel a little disappointed.
Fortunately, what followed was utterly gorgeous. The smoked aubergine, chick pea and tomato bake left us doing exactly what we expect to do during a good meal: savouring every mouthful, chewing slowly and unwilling to break off the experience for the sake of conversation. The dish had a deliciously smoky depth of flavour, suffused with paprika, and a lovely, melting softness of texture, balanced by the whole chickpeas and a slight crispiness from the lightly grilled skins of the aubergine.
Throughout the meal we were drinking Running Duck red wine, one of the world’s few wines that are both organic and fair trade. It went very well with the main course, and is also produced in a unique fashion. The name comes from an inventive form of natural pest control: Indian Runner ducks are sent roaming into the vineyards, where they nosh on snails and other threats to the vines.
Finally, there were a couple of sweet dishes, a granita of frozen blood orange, and boozy autumn fruits with caramelised nut and oat clusters. The granita was a little uninspiring, tasting of nothing more than frozen blood orange, while the fruits and clusters were a more successful blend of sweet and savoury, mushy and crunchy.
While Asparagasm is intended partly as an argument for the merits of vegan cooking, there wasn’t the slightest whiff of self-righteous proselytising. It all unfolded in the best of humours, and punters were left entirely free to make up their own minds.
So what were our conclusions? Well, the quality of the food was a little mixed, though there were some delicious moments that would certainly draw us back to sample future menus. It is worth bearing in mind that the chefs themselves were not vegan, or even vegetarian, and so were cooking far beyond their comfort zone. The fact they produced something as delicious as the aubergine, chickpea and tomato bake proves beyond doubt that vegan food can reach sublime sensual heights. And the meal was complemented by a great vibe, the relaxed atmosphere enlivened by eccentric fragments of entertainment. While it may not turn you vegan for life, Asparagasm is certainly an experience worth trying – probably more than once.
For more information visit their website here.