Location: 55 Stoke Newington Church Street, Stoke Newington, London.
I'm daydreaming about eggplant today, tender slices melting into a yogurt-rich sauce with onion and tamarind, more than the sum of its parts. I ate some of this confection last night at dinner at Rasa with haggisthesecond, naxos, and C. This is the Rasa chain's original, and still all-vegetarian branch, and we were having The Kerala Feast. So copious were its parts that, for all several of us agreed that Bagar Baingan was the most sublime dish there, we left a spoonful or two of it behind in its serving dish. If you're hungry, like good food, and happy not to bother with meat, £16 for more food than we could eat, cooked to order and modified to incorporate a handful of nominated dishes, is a mighty good deal.
We started with a selection of pre-starters, crisp, bready nibbles to go with a selection of six chutneys and pickles. We continued with an array of three starters, all fried with sauces; the Mysore Bonda, fluffy potato balls spiced with ginger, curry leaves, and black mustard seeds, topped with a light coconut chutney, was the best of them. Main were what truly overwhelmed us. Masala doses, parathas, lemon rice, tamarind rice - and six mains, plus a salad (by my request), filled the table and left us replete. Eventually, after a break, we finished with a modest portion of warm, cozy rice pudding, and two boxes of leftovers for later.
Clean, friendly, and very pink (it's the branding), Rasa is a high-quality bargain. Full on a Monday night, I was glad that our organizer, the birthday girl of the group, thought to make a reservation in advance.
Location: 63-64 Frith Street. In Soho, near Tottenham Court Road station. London.
Regularly touted as London's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Arbutus offers some very well-priced pre-theater and lunchtime deal, but for dinner, prices are a little more usual. Still, it's a self-conscious restaurant about its prices and its economies, with past articles in Restaurant magazine investigating its effecient use of animal and vegetable parts.
The menu was exciting, although the vegetarians in our party (taldragon and R.) were limited to an option of one dish per course. I started with a delicate, fruity prosecco with fresh strawberry juice before moving on to a starter of fabulously tender smoked eel, accompanied by crispy boneless chicken wings, a dollop of puréed sweet corn, and thin pancake-like slices of sweet-and-sour turnips. Each part was excellent, but the dish as a whole was rather incoherent. My saddle of rabbit, with cheery bright green seasonal broad beans, and, arriving in its own dish, a cottage pie of rabbit shoulder, was cozy and low-key. C.'s and lazyknight's bavette was wonderfully tender and buttery, while the vegearian risotto wasn't noteworthy - except for the bright taste of extremely fresh peas which enlivened it.
My dessert was the highlight of my meal, a rich, smooth cold chocolate fondant, like thick mousse, topped with a chocolate wafter and balanced by a scoop of almond milk sorbet. C.'s floating island and custard was a melt-in-your-mouth pink marshmallow of great delicacy. They had fresh mint tea, so I loitered over that at the end of the meal.
It's a clean-lined place, modern with bare wood tables, black banquettes, and white walls. Service was well-informed and dishes arrived promptly. I would trust them to deliver a full pre-theater meal in good time. The food was good, sometimes delightful, if not entirely consistent, especially for the more limited vegetarians. Still, if the meat and fish eaters, there's some seriously interesting food happening here; at its worst, perfectly acceptable, at its best, exciting.
Bonus tip: On Saturday night, we were a group of five, looking for a quiet place to loiter and have a few drinks. With pubs crowded and most coffee shops closed, a quiet hotel bar proved the perfect option. I'll remember this for future such needs.