It was a cold, damp November night and I just wanted a bowl of something hot, spicy and meaty, but instead, I found myself in a packed out sushi restaurant, Moshimo, for the fifth annual Vegan Challenge.
Nine of Brighton’s best chefs were lined up to each produce a plate of Asian-inspired vegan food. One hundred paying guests at £35 per head would be individually scoring on presentation, taste and innovation, a possible thirty points for every entry, the highest scorer would be that evening’s winner.
Nicky Röhl, the founder of Moshimo and mastermind behind the Fishlove campaign, was the MC for the evening. He explained that the thought behind the challenge was not only to bring us a selection of the most innovative food in town but also to highlight that we are over-producing meat and fish and it’s not sustainable.
Veganism gets a lot of mixed press, personally, I have radically reduced the amount of meat and fish I eat. It horrifies me what goes on behind the scenes to produce the meat we put on our plates. If I eat animal protein it has to be organic and ethically produced. The labour involved in this is reflected in the price, hence the fact I don’t eat it very often. How is it possible to produce a chicken for £4? When I was growing up roast chicken was a real treat, not a quick midweek meal. A happy chicken should cost around £14, it’s a big difference I know, and I am very lucky to be able to make that choice.
I’ve learnt to do amazing things with vegetables. Thanks to chefs like Ottolenghi and bloggers like Deliciously Ella. They have inspired a generation of Guardian readers to pimp their Abel and Cole box and serve up veg as a delicious alternative to their families and to impress their friends at dinner parties.
At 7:30 the challenge began. There was a bit of a kerfuffle with the first dish “Maki Mango.” Some of the diners didn’t get that there was just one of each dish per person – it wasn’t like a normal sushi night where you helped yourself to as much as you wanted – so between the first two tables they took an extra 11 portions! The chef concerned hadn’t made a surplus, so I and 10 other diners didn’t get to taste it! 0/20
Next out was “Beach Garden” it looked absolutely stunning and had taken 14 man hours to plate up over 100 portions.
It was sushi rice wrapped in seaweed, the ‘soil’ topping was a mushroom and horseradish ketchup and corn baked with teriyaki and sake. It was topped with delicate edible flowers, each selected for their unique taste. On the side was a Bloody Mary shot with a homemade “secret’ vegan bloody mary mix… it was bloody delicious and the most beautifully presented dish of the night… had we peaked too early?? My score 27/30
Third out was “Massaman” which did exactly what is said on the tin, it was a Massaman curry.
It was tasty and looked lovely, but it wasn’t innovative and it was quite obvious which restaurant produced it. 21/30
“Seitan Nigiri” was the next to tempt us and another stunningly presented dish. How does someone slice a tomato that thin??! It was dehydrated into a crisp and looked like a stained glass window.
Competitor number five gave us “Suika Sue” again stunning presentation, two slices of sake-marinated watermelon – which looked like the best sushi grade tuna – each topped with wakame wrapped in cucumber, one with ginger and one with beetroot.
Randomly it tasted too fishy?! The Wakame was overpowering, it was like eating a strong, oily fish, not something I dislike, but it screwed with my ‘vegan’ tastebuds. 22/30
Next up was “Black Eye Beans” – again no prizes for guessing which restaurant was behind this one.
A very tasty corn tostada topped with re-fried beans and butternut squash, but it was quite obviously Mexican even with the addition of some kimchi and a hint of wasabi in the chipotle mayonnaise. 24/30
Dish number 7 “You say potato, I say potato,” was lush. On such a cold wintery night, it was perfectly described by one of my fellow diners as ‘vegan pub grub.’
A hot ball of sweet potato and aubergine, deep fried with a really crispy coat, pickled mushrooms and a miso and sesame dressing. It was simple, delicious and my favourite. 28/30
The penultimate dish was “Open Sesame” a wedge of homemade tofu and celeriac with a soy and coriander dressing.
It looked lovely and had a great texture, but sadly a really acrid aftertaste, it was unpleasant and it wouldn’t go away and for that reason, it got my lowest score of the evening. 20/30
I had just enough room left for the ninth and final dish “My Clementine” a simple dish of carrot and clementines with a satay sauce.
The flavour was amazing, the three main components worked well together, but it just looked really sad… all the colour had gone. It was a little brown carrot which looked like a rat’s tail, with some brown satay and some pale clementine. It really needed some colour, you eat with your eyes. 22/30
Score cards were collected and the votes were counted and verified and the winner, very deservedly was dish Number 7 ‘You Say Potato, I Say Potato” from the gorgeous Tina Hovarth of Cantina, proof that keeping it simple works.
Runner up was Kieron James from Beach BBQ for his beautiful “Beach Garden” creation. Known for his steaks, I was amazed that he was behind such a delicate vegan dish. He has proper man hands and I asked how he managed to present such a delicate dish with his big meaty fingers? He just smiled.
Third place went to John Bayley from Cashew Catering and his amazing stained glass window tomato atop “Seitan Nigiri.” Not only is John a great chef, he is a true gent, he let me jump in front of him whilst waiting for the loo.
Surprisingly 7th and 8th place went to 64Degrees and The Set. I was stunned that the acrid homemade tofu came from 64Degrees and the brown carrot from The Set. I have eaten at both restaurants and their vegetarian food is both delicious and beautiful. Did they loose their creativity because it was vegan??
It was a great night and I will definitely be there next year and for any of you hardcore carnivores out there I’d highly recommend it, It will definitely give you food for thought.