By Joe McNamee
I spent 15 years as a vegetarian but through all those non-meat eating years, vegans were different, vegetarianism’s fundamentalists, hardcore evangelists who took ethical concerns to their logical conclusion, foresaking not just meat but all animal-derived foodstuffs and produce, including dairy produce and eggs.
Just over a decade ago, that all began to change and since 2006, the numbers of vegans in Britain exploded, from an estimated 150,000 to today’s estimated figure, close to 3.5m.
Some 6% of the US population now self-identify as vegan while in China, a staggering 50m have switched to veganism.
This millennial-driven change is inspired by a combination of concerns — animal welfare, the environment and personal health —and while there are no Irish figures, veganism is increasingly part of our national culinary conversation.
While I am a great admirer of anyone who breaks the mould and opens a restaurant or café in an unusual or risky location, part of me is still fretting on behalf of chef/proprietor Lauren Marples, for 143 V, sited in a former terraced shop, is a brisk 10 to 15-minute walk from the city centre to an area past the train station that appears to have been in commercial decline for some time.
All doubts instantly dissipate the moment we walk through the door. Sometimes, you just know when a place is right, ever before totting up pluses and minuses and this first impression is wonderful.
It is tiny, quirky, awkward, but in a way that lends real character and, most importantly, it is light, bright and very welcoming.
We begin with delicious cold-pressed juices, La Daughter and I enjoying the tropical sweetness of Pineapple Express while resident chilli fiend, No 2 Son, takes on a Red Hot Chilli, including ginger, turmeric and cayenne pepper. The Brother’s Lime Yours (Apple, Ginger, Lime, Orange & Strawberries) a reputed tonic for respiratory and digestive ailments, is clear winner, with a bright, refreshing citric zing.
We four share three starters: sweet House Hummus and well-balanced Guacamole with Corn Chips, remorselessly dispatched by No 2 Son and La Daughter; carmelised cubes of silky tofu sport soft notes of garlic and ginger, served with mixed leaves and tahini dressing; sautéed, ‘meaty’ Garlic mushrooms soak into fresh bread.
The Brother, very much in the market for healing, has a Rainbow Bowl, including more of the tofu, sweet potato chunks, crunchy raw peppers and red cabbage, sweetcorn, avocado, pomegranate and mixed leaves. If that all sounds overly worthy, tahini dressing, toasted sesame seeds and chilli flakes crank up the flavour quotient, making for tasty medicine.
Fervent falafel fans that they are, No 2 Son and La Daughter plump for Sweet Falafel Sandwich, with mustard, carmelised cabbage, lettuce, tahini, although La Daughter customises her fillings, revisiting the guacamole along with a serving of rustic potatoes and vegan “cheese”.
We prefer our falafels on the lighter, crunchier side to 143V’s denser, fudge-like version, but flavours are sound and fillings add crunch. La Daughter gives the thumbs up to all save the vegan cheese and I have to agree. It is an uncanny imitation of an industrially-produced cheddar, but as a fundamentalist worshipper of real cheese, particularly Irish farmhouse cheeses, it seems a futile exercise, the strongest impediment to any potential conversion to veganism on my part.
A smoked “cheese” crops up again, this time in my Southern Burger, homemade seitan (Asian wheat-gluten meat substitute, dating back some 1,000 years), crumbed and cooked southern fried chicken-style. Served in a bun with leaves, tomato, onion and sweet, savoury BBQ sauce, it works well, an ideal gateway dish for a meat eater crossing over into veganism.
The progeny finish with pancakes while I enjoy chocolate almond brownie and a nice bitter coffee, all the while marveling at the absence of any post-prandial torpor or lethargy, the inevitable fate of the carnivore.
Veganism is still very much a callow youth in terms of Irish hospitality and it is hard to tell whether its astonishing explosion in popularity is mere fad or a genuine tectonic shift in dining attitudes but there is a quiet and confident assuredness to Lauren Marples’ cooking, allied to a sound palate, that suggests potential for the future, vegan or otherwise. For the moment, it has become one of my new favourite brunch/lunch hangouts in the city, for those days when I’m in need of some truly bearable lightness of being.
143 V, 143 Lower Glanmire Rd, Tivoli, Cork.
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 8pm.
Tab: €95 (including coffee, desserts)