The city’s first all-vegan cafe has just opened at The Old Red Bus Station, so we went down to give it a try…
I should probably start this review with the admission that I’m not vegan in the slightest. I’m a meat-eater through and through. So this probably doesn’t make me the best candidate to review a brand new all-vegan restaurant. But then again, maybe it does. It means that I can judge the food for what it is, food, and not play it down as exclusively for vegans.
You might have heard of The Old Red Bus Station as one of Leeds’ edgy club venues, playing some of the best of drum and bass bangers, but little did you know that the city’s first all-vegan cafe has opened upstairs. Light and airy, with windows offering views over the surrounding area, it’s a venue that deserves some daytime usage.
And if you frequent the farmer’s market outside LUU every Monday, you might even recognise the face through the kitchen hatch, the head chef at Cantina cooking up all these vegan delights. Billy Collins founded Honest Edibles, an all-healthy all-vegan food initiative and he sells his products to Leeds students every week. With the opening of Cantina, he now has his own restaurant to showcase his work and pass on his message about the benefits of vegan food.
On arrival we were treated to a glass of all vegan wine, before being presented with a host of Vegan tapas dishes, starting with Pisto Frijoles, spicy Mexican beans with peppers and aubergines in a smoked paprika and tomato sauce. Now, there’s no getting around the fact that vegan food isn’t the prettiest. This particular dish, while tasting delicious, did look like brown slop, but was elegantly spruced up with a sprig of wild garlic (And if you haven’t tasted that before, you’re missing out).
Next up was the 5 spice panko crumb pop corn tofu with sweet chilli sauce. These had quite a kick that was almost too much to handle, but for those who might be worried about what popcorn chicken tastes like without the chicken, I can assure it’s not as bad as you think. They were crispy on the outside but succulent on the inside, and even though I’m a diehard chicken nugget fan, the lack of meat was hardly noticeable.
The sweet potato and cauliflower daal was bursting with spicy flavour, but the sauce was slightly overwhelming, and this was the dish where I found the absence of meat or fish most noticeable. The meatless chorizo meatballs (I have no idea how that works either), were incredibly filling and as a larger portion would definitely work as a meal on their own.
If you’ve never tried plantain before, I would recommend you changing that immediately. They taste like a cross between banana and potato, and are rapidly increasing in popularity across the country. They were topped with a creamy jerk sauce, which may not have looked the most appetising but added a delicious exotic flavour.
To finish, the spiciest of the night; Hells Fire Seitan Strips in a crispy Southern fried panko crumb, with BBQ sauce or, if you’re feeling brave, Scotch Bonnet Sauce. While all the dishes we tried were delicious, I did feel like there was a slight over reliance on spiciness to compensate for the lack of flavour in the other ingredients used; I would have like to have tried some dishes which utilised other flavours.
There was no denying that all the dishes we tried were delicious, regardless of the fact they were all vegan. If you’re considering making the jump to veggie or vegan, a trip to Cantina is the perfect way to assure you that your diet can still remain varied and exciting, however I did think that at £4 to £5 a dish, it was a little on the pricey side.
While the experience won’t be converting me to veganism anytime soon, it did show me that I can have a perfectly delicious, filling and enjoyable meal that was healthy and meat-free, and that’s a lesson I think everyone needs to learn.