Vegan dining is often associated with sanctimonious phrases like “guilt-free” and “clean eating”, as though carnivores are in a constant state of culpability and dirtiness. This is perhaps why – even though I generally eat a plant-based diet – I’ve never felt that turned on by the UK’s vegan restaurant scene. However, when an invitation to try Bad Vegan – a “revolutionary” fast food concept – dropped in my inbox, I was intrigued.
Bad Vegan is the baby of Michelin-starred celebrity chef Tom Kerridge and events specialist Mark Emms. Located on the top floor of Camden’s Buck Street Market, which places an emphasis on conscious consumption, the relaxed joint aims to tap into London’s burgeoning vegan landscape in a fresh and unpretentious way.
The Buck Street Market site, which opened on 24 June, is Bad Vegan’s first, but plans to expand around the UK are already on the horizon. A tester location in Covent Garden is next up, followed by university towns.
Despite what its name suggests, Bad Vegan is predominantly plant-based but not a vegan restaurant; the menu includes one carnivorous choice. By doing this, Kerridge and Emms are subverting traditional menus where vegans and veggies usually get just one option (normally a mushroom risotto) while meat-eaters have their pick.
“For so long, there have been such limited vegan options at the majority of restaurants”, Emms said in a statement. “We wanted to flip this around and create a space where plant food led the menu, but somewhere that both vegans and non-vegans would be excited to visit.”
For Kerridge and Emms, Bad Vegan is a sturdy gateway to a more cruelty-conscious lifestyle. The restaurant’s mission, as outlined on its website, is “to introduce and sustain a greater level of plant-based vegan foods into people’s diets, while not alienating non-vegans”.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a complete success; Viva, the UK-based vegan campaigning charity, was quick to criticise Kerridge for “capitalising on the popularity of veganism” and branded the restaurant’s name “misleading”, Plant Based News reports.
Steps have been taken by the pair to make the eatery as vegan-friendly as possible though; the kitchen has been divided into vegan and non-vegan foods and separate utensils and cooking equipment are used to avoid cross-contamination.
Bad Vegan’s fast food-style menu is 100% natural, with everything made on-site using fresh, high-quality ingredients. While vegan substitutes like facon (vegetarian “bacon”) and Beyond Meat burgers are ubiquitous on pub menus these days, Bad Vegan shuns meat-tasting/textured substitutes for vegetables and natural, unrefined flavours.
Ordering off an iPad, my dining companion and I opted for a pizza-like roasted mushroom and black truffle flatbread, a portion of cauliflyer (crunchy cauliflower florets coated in sweet, sticky chilli sauce with toasted sesame, fresh coriander and chilli) and Bad Vegan’s blockbuster menu item: The Taternator, a crunchy potato finger wrapped in soft tortilla.
There are three vegan fillings available with The Taternator (cheese and onion, BBQ and smoky chipotle) as well as one non-vegan (beef brisket with chimichurri sauce, garlic and lemon slaw). We chose the brisket out of curiosity to see what a meaty option would taste like – and it was absolutely delicious.
The food is heavy but lightened by the punchy flavours (my highlight was the can’t-believe-it’s-not cream truffle flatbread). Thinking back to what vegan and vegetarian restaurant food looked like just a few years ago – heavy on tofu, light on taste – Bad Vegan is a shining example of just how far things have come. It didn’t feel like anything was “missing” or a poor substitute for meat; each dish shone – and, thankfully, couldn’t have been further from “clean” or “guilt-free” eating.
The portions are generous so sharing a couple of dishes between two people, small-plate style, is preferable.
After that fast food feast, fitting in dessert was difficult but we somehow found room for Bad Vegan’s “you won’t believe it’s vegan” mega shakes (not all heroes wear capes). Made with soya milk, air-light coconut foam and lemon and coconut essence, these shakes come in two classic milkshake flavours: cookies & cream and peanut butter & jelly.
Ordinarily, milkshakes are not my go-to drink; I don’t have a sweet tooth and am mildly lactose intolerant meaning they’d often be more of a disaster than a delight. However these shakes were a pleasant surprise – they weren’t sickly sweet or overwhelmingly creamy, making them refreshing rather than something I’d later regret.
We washed down our mains with Bad Vegan’s own beer, created in partnership with Camden Town Brewery. A Session IPA, the tart, citrus-centric drink was perfect for plant-based pairing.
In terms of fast food, Bad Vegan is significantly less cheap than, say, McDonald’s or KFC (our meal, which included three portions of food, two milkshakes and two beers, came to about £50). But if you’re looking for a quick and unpretentious bite to eat that’s packed with flavour and made from only natural, high-quality ingredients, it’s a mighty alternative.
The team behind the concept described the restaurant as “revolutionary” – an overused term in the world of food PR. However, in the case of Bad Vegan it does feel appropriate; the menu is innovative and fun – and a strong reminder that vegan dining can be the complete opposite of condescending, humourless and “guilt-free”.
It may be more for the plant-curious than long-term vegans, but Bad Vegan does have what it takes to convince committed carnivores of the value of vegetables – an important feat in this day and age when we should all be aiming to reduce our environmental impact.
Bad Vegan, Buck Street Market, 198 Camden High St, London NW1 8QP; bad-vegan.com