Until recently, Mildreds had a niche appeal: meat-free and going strong since 1988, but not exactly mainstream. Your average diner liked vegetables, sure, but preferred them with a lovely steak. Or even a not particularly lovely steak, such as the ones served at the Covent Garden Angus Steakhouse, where tourists flocked for the 12oz ribeye and the Carolina chunky chips smothered in cheese and crisp bacon. Or at least they did until it was closed and replaced by a new and very busy branch of Mildreds.
Interestingly, the Burger King on nearby Leicester Square also turned vegan for a month this year, serving plant-based Whoppers to constant queues. Plants, it seems, are coming for us all, although anyone who has seen The Day of the Triffids would be under no illusions about any of this.
Modern-day Mildreds is no longer the odd kid on the block. Once, it was a name to have up your sleeve for when weird Auntie June who didn’t shave her armpits came to town. Now, it is sleek and elegant; the new St Martin’s Lane branch even has a 10-person private dining room called Jane’s Place.
Today’s clientele are everyday – mixed groups, birthday parties, etc – just as they are at the Pizza Express next door. My abiding memory of my Friday lunch was how they’re in dire need of more staff to deal with all the hopeful walk-ins gawping at the menu outside and blocking the doorway.
The menu is delightfully bizarre in presentation, in a tiny font and all lower case, and featuring strings of words such as “mercimek kofte, pea & pomegranate freekeh, dill tahini” or “alma bowl, sweetcorn goji quinoa, rainbow ribbons, neep & beet pickle, leche de tigre shrub, almond queso fresco, avocado cream, omega seeds”; “edamame, szechuan passion, furikake” sits alongside “tempeh laab club cultured, prik nam pla dressing, leaves, herbs”.
Mildreds’ menu is a list of geographically incongruent small and main plates influenced by the cuisines of India, Turkey, Korea, Thailand, South America, Los Angeles and beyond, with authentic-sounding names spliced with fake meats and terms for alternative proteins. Thus a rather straightforward, fake-chicken kebab, for example, is listed as “bhatti ka chick’n” – it was great, incidentally: smoky and well seasoned, served with a mango pickle yoghurt and a bowl of rich, sweet tomato chilli chutney. The soy chick’n that Mildreds uses is one I’ve seen in several good restaurants recently, has a disconcertingly real mouth-feel and soaks up the tastes of griddle pans, spices and sauces incredibly well. Lord knows where we’ll be with all this stuff in 10 years’ time – the leaps and bounds in the fake meat world are utterly amazing.
“Katsu hot dog” was slightly less exciting, because the breadcrumbed faux frankfurter wasn’t quite warm, but it was saved by a pile of zingy pickled daikon that made me overlook the bowl of anonymous katsu curry sauce. A plate of gunpowder bonda – pea, spinach and potato fritters – lacked much evidence of heat, although more successful were the spinach gyoza that turned up with yet more daikon and a sharp orange lime ponzu.
We ordered a “faux rerro cake” with chocolate sauce, hazelnut praline and “chantilly cream”, although we knew the latter wasn’t feasible, and the arrival of this chocolate cake was the point when Charles, who typically grizzles through all vegetarian restaurant visits but had been jovial up until this point, began to grumble. “It tastes of mushrooms,” he said.
“OK, yes,” I agreed. “It’s a bit earthy, but it looks the part.”
Mildreds’ “vegan” menu is almost unique in its utter lack of any mention of being vegan, vegetarian, anti-meat, pro-planet or whatever. There’s no chummy mission statement next to the starters about being kind to pigs or saving us from cow farts, no whimsical poetry on the pudding list, no lecture at the bottom of the bill and no invite by the coat stand to a vegan poetry slam evening. This is the first meat-free establishment I’ve eaten in that didn’t try to flog me a holistic birth doula service when I sat on the loo.
Mildreds is unapologetic and utterly un-preachy, and there’s nothing more than a small “100% plant-based” mention on the menu. They’ve been doing what they do since 1988, and it has now become fashionable. Mildreds is not here to change your mind; if you don’t like it, hop off. They’re a bit long in the tooth for explanations and, besides, they’re far too busy, anyway.
Mildreds 79 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2, 020-8066 8393. Open Mon-Fri 8.30am-11pm, Sat 9am–11pm, Sun 9am–10.30pm. About £30 a head, plus drinks and service