DISH DETECTIVE: The cafe turning the way we think of vegan food on its head
TheÂ Dish Detective is a great admirer of vegans but would struggle being one because, you know, cheese. And eggs. And sometimes a sausage sandwich or big juicy beefburger.
But in general the DD agrees completelyÂ with healthier livingÂ and food that burdens the planet's resources less. It's just that sometimes it's so'¦Â tasteless.
However, inspiration and help is at hand.
Â There was talk of a small cafe that could if not convert non-believers then at least show them that veganism did not have to equal lettuce and dairy-free cardboard.
And so the DD headed to Wickham, and venturing to the back of an antiques shop '“Â yes, really '“ found Offbeet.
And, my word, is it good.
The cafe itself is bright, welcoming and bustling.Â At midday on a grey Thursday several tables were empty but with reserved signs on them, and there was a healthy number of people in for lunch or tea and cake '“Â more of that later.
When we visited, the current menu had only just been unveiled and at first glance it seemed to be standard cafe fare.
The DD's staple fallback ofÂ a burger was there, and so were what were on the face of it noodle dishes.
But read a little closer and intrigue started to build '“Â the burger was beetroot and black bean, the bun coconut and topped with poppy seed (Â£12.95).
The DD's companion '“Â far more sceptical about veganism, a true meat and two veg girl (no laughing at the back) went for parghetti (Â£9.95).
We thought this was an exotic food we hadn't encountered before, but then the penny dropped '“Â it was parsnip spaghetti, or rather noodles, and came with aubergine pancetta, some air-dried aubergine that had a very meaty tasteÂ to it, and some lemon '˜air' '“Â a light foam.
Were the dishes good?
Yes, absolutely fantastic.
The burger '“Â substantial but not leaden, flavourful but not overpowering '“Â came with moreish polenta chips, which were far more than just a substitute for normal chips but a delight in themselves.
They were quite thin, presumably to avoid the stodgy feeling that polenta can often have. The parghetti's cashew sauce and herbs were a perfect lift for the noodles. It's a great feeling, eating delicious food while feeling worthy about it.
There's no alcohol licence at Offbeet, but there are a range of equally enticing drinks. There was a choice of soy, almond, coconut or pumpkin seed milk (I have no idea how you get milk out of a pumpkin seed either), as well as Karma Cola, Lemony Lemonade and Gingerella Ginger Ale.
We went for a Mojitea (Â£2.70) '“Â green tea with peppermint and lime '“Â and a Karma Cola, and then finished the meal with a banana coconut caramel (Â£3.75) and a Notella (Â£2.95) from the fresh (gluten-free) cakes under glass cover by the till.
A touch heavy perhaps, but when taken slowly with a coffee for two (Â£4.95, and poured from a work of engineering genius), still very pleasurable indeed.
Offbeet has deservedly won plaudits, with one glowing review on the wall when we were there... a national broadsheet journalist came down and in between worries about whether we'd have decent 4G coverage here, made a few cracks about being in a part of the country where clean eating is '˜swabbing your cow down before chucking it on the grill'.
Well, he's just jealous; we've got a proper vegan restaurant, serving proper food and not a hipster in sight.
Offbeet? Upbeet more like.
The Dish Detective is converted.Â Well, almost.Â Because, you know, pork scratchings.'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹