Vegetarians are not popular with chefs. Too many chefs fob us off with the most basic of pasta dishes, terrible vegetable platters featuring a large undercooked mushroom and a grey, overbaked potato, or inedible “vegetarian burgers” cooked on the same grill as the real thing. In a few vegetarian-friendly establishments the kitchen rises to the challenge, but these eateries don’t qualify as vegetarian. (Note: fish and chicken are not vegetables, neither is a marrow bone bobbing in a pot of vegetable soup.)
I understand the restaurateurs’ problems, even if they don’t understand mine. Fortunately, there are a few restaurants in Johannesburg that get it right.
Fruits and Roots is the first establishment that comes to mind. It has been around since 1985, when it began as a small shop on Rockey Street in Bellevue East. It is still with us, as a large food emporium and successful restaurant in Bryanston, where one can lunch every day except Sunday on a tree-shaded patio to a background of bird calls. On Friday and Saturday there’s a buffet.
The curries could be hotter — in fact, they used to be — but the shepherd’s pie, made with lentils and a potato and butternut topping, has a subtle bite and is divine.
There are bakes, wraps and pizza, salads and sandwiches, many with hummus. Owner and manager Robert Armstrong holds an MA in environmental management; he tries to buy local and insists on organic. The smoothies and shakes, fruit and vegetable juices are the best you’ll find anywhere.
But if Bryanston is not on your list, there’s Fresh Earth in Emmarentia, a smaller, former Fruits and Roots, with a similar menu and the same good smoothies but lacking the airy ambiance of its larger cousin. Owner Matthew Ballenden, who learned the restaurant trade at, inter alia, Mugg and Bean, is planning to open at night next year and on Sundays, but at the moment it’s breakfast and lunch only and buffets daily.
The menu is similar to the one at the Bryanston restaurant, the vegetable Thai stir-fry is excellent, and the falafel burger, sitting on a bun with Emmentaler cheese, caramelised onion and sweet chilli sauce, is remarkably good. Coffee is fair trade organic Ethiopian.
The Fruits and Roots empire was founded by the redoubtable Har Bhajan and Pritam Khalsa, who sold both restaurants to their long-time managers and now largely concentrate on Earth Products.
These are the people who bring us a huge range of non-GM food, including tofu, nuts, a range of interesting grains, dried cranberries, sun-dried raisins. Both Fresh Earth and Fruits and Roots bear their imprint and both offer cooking classes.
A newcomer is the Greenside Café, tucked in under the Quan Yin meditation centre on Gleneagles Road. Owner Dimitri Gutjahr is involved in the centre but his restaurant is separate and independent. Restaurants are a family tradition: his mother created the Russian Tea Room in Dunkeld back in the 1980s.
The Greenside Café is into saving the planet. “It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf,” says the café’s handout. “Let’s make it a green leaf.” The café’s pizzas are made with a free-form sourdough base topped with either real or vegan mozzarella and whatever toppings one wants.
An “English-style breakfast” includes refried beans, haloumi and excellent scrambled curried tofu. There are soup, salads, nori wraps, smoothies and freshly squeezed juices — the pineapple juice comes with notes of ginger. The coffee is Ethiopian.
Until two years ago Baps Shayona was a tiny but brilliant Indian restaurant in Mayfair, where people dropping in for the best vegetarian food in town could watch the staff doing up orders at the next table.
But recently more branches have opened in Laudium and Lenasia. Meanwhile, the Mayfair restaurant has expanded to the end of the street and built two kitchens: one for Indian food and the other for Italian cooking and housing a pizza oven.
What’s with the pizza? “When a family comes in, some want to have Indian food and some young people want Italian food. The youngsters want pizza,” says the manager.
Baps Shayona (Baps stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) started as a catering operation a decade ago to support its mission’s charities. Its fame promptly spread; another shop was taken over and a few tables set out.
Although there is no garlic or onions in the curries, they are first rate. The paneer, made on the premises, is superb. The rotis and poppadums are the finest, and just gazing into the huge case of Shayona’s sweetmeats can give you a toothache.
A deluxe lunch served on a metal tray consists of three curries, including one with paneer, dahl, several rotis, samoosas, mango achar and other condiments. Rice and a dish of cool, rich and delicious shrikhand is for dessert. It’s enough for two people and only R60.
Anyone ordering pizzas here will be missing out. But you know what kids are like — you can’t tell them anything.