It was always going to be an uphill struggle getting my curmudgeonly friend Alf along to a vegetarian restaurant. For a start, Alf prefers not to travel more than a few hundred feet from his home, and this outing to The Gate in Belsize Park meant crossing at least two pages of the A- Z. Then there's the small matter of his allergy to dairy produce, which means that the typical vegetarian menu, with its reliance on cheese as the dominant protein, presents him with all sorts of problems.
Alf's intolerance is by no means restricted to dairy products; he responded to my tentative invite to a free veggie feast by saying that, since he'd never been informed of a death or a bad Arsenal score by e-mail, mine had to count as the worst message he had ever received. "But the original Gate in Hammersmith is meant to be London's best vegetarian restaurant," I pleaded. "It would have to be a lot better than that to get me there," he insisted.
One quarter of us may have converted to vegetarianism since the foot- and-mouth crisis began, but there's always going to be a militant faction of die-hard meat-eaters like Alf who would no more choose to dine in a vegetarian restaurant than they would pierce their nostrils or take up yoga. Which is a shame, because as far as vegetarian restaurants go, The Gate, both in its original Hammersmith location and now in this new Belsize Park spin-off, is a particularly pleasure-oriented and pleasurable one.
They even allow smoking, which eventually allowed me to clinch the deal with Alf (although I hid from him The Gate's policy of deciding on the day whether the restaurant is non-smoking or not, depending on the other bookings).
Alf's vice meant we found ourselves barred from the main dining room, a narrow, loft-like space full of young, healthy-looking people, and exiled downstairs to a slightly oppressive low- ceilinged room, which also contained the open kitchen. Seating is on benches around large communal MDF tables, like a student union bar, the walls are of bare brick, and neon strip- lights in pink and blue demarcate the loos. I'd guess that the words "clubby" and "funky" featured large in the designers' original pitch, though "rough" and "ready" were two more that sprang to mind.
Alf arrived in characteristically good humour. "I passed so many restaurants on the way here - Indian, Chinese - and all of them serving meat. Can't we just go to one of them?" But by then the rest of us were already dipping excellent bread into olive oil, and scanning the wine list, (an eccentric document apparently written by a Japanese T-shirt designer, which favours descriptions like "Fruit up-front scent like berries and mint sign that sun-baked wine.") The Gate menu changes monthly and is not at all reliant on cheese, nuts, pulses and all the other cliches of vegetarian cooking. Many of the dishes are available for either vegetarians or vegans, and the use of global ingredients, imaginatively combined, creates an impression not of limitation, but of unusually wide choice.
Our starters signalled a kitchen as capable of turning out sturdy staples as exotic delicacies. The soup of the day, a butterbean minestrone, was based on a tomato-rich broth, which was neither acidic nor too sweet. Herb-crusted goats' cheese was rescued from blandness by a spiced fruit chutney, while a sage and parmesan risotto was moist without being glutinous, and served with a crunchy tangle of spaghetti squash.
Alf went very quiet over his green banana fritters - plump deep- fried spheres of plantain and banana seasoned with shallots, ginger, coriander and chilli, given added Caribbean kick by a fresh coconut and lime chutney. …