First impressions count. This is a basic life lesson and one does not need to have much experience of visiting restaurants to know that there is a right way of doing things and a wrong one. The Gate did it the wrong way. It’s not a lot to ask the front of house to greet guests with a modicum of enthusiasm. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that the menus don’t have previous diners’ food stains on them. You can guess what happened to my dining comrade and I on a recent Saturday night visit. Our evening at The Gate was therefore off to a bad start and it would have taken some amazing food or vastly memorable service to have revised this negative impression. Neither was forthcoming.
Back when the group behind The Gate opened its first eponymous restaurant in Hammersmith in 1989, vegetarianism was something of a novelty. Now, as The Gate’s expansion would attest, it is increasingly mainstream, even on-trend, as the anti-/reduced-meat backlash grows. Celebrity chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi have done much for the cause, raising both public perceptions and quality expectations. Yet somehow, The Gate’s approach to interpreting the vegetarian zeitgeist seems mired in the past. When I dine out, I want to be wowed – and, a red Thai curry or a plate of tortillas sadly isn’t going to do it. Put another way, when there are so many exciting things that can be done with vegetables, why stick to the more pedestrian, opting to pick a ‘national favourite’ from selected geographies around the world rather than, say, working intelligently with seasonal ingredients? My comrade (a vegetarian for all her adult life) and I felt depressed rather than elated with the menu options, and our view did not change markedly once the food arrived. It was hard to fault specifically the dishes, but there was no wow, no joy, no palate stimulation. I struggled to identify exactly which vegetable comprised my artichoke terrine starter, a dish which was only just about redeemed by the accompanying semi-dried tomato salsa. Meanwhile, my wild mushroom risotto cake main was inoffensive, but became stodgy towards the end. My comrade’s sumac aubergine option did, at least, get a slightly more favourable endorsement, but certainly no outright praise. With super-bright lighting, limited décor on the white-washed walls and wine served out of glasses that would not have been out of place in a student’s digs, there was little reason to linger once our mains were done. Dessert options such as the faintly nauseating Baileys cheesecake or peanut butter brownie hardly helped the cause. When we left, there was maybe the faintest nod of acknowledgement from the staff. The evening proved most memorable in its disappointment. Diners deserve better.