Here's a sweeping statement to pointlessly antagonise a great many people - vegetarians in the UK, on the whole, do not really like food. At least that is the impression I often get. I'm not talking about those who just avoid red meats, or even those who eat a wide variety of fish and seafood but avoid game and poultry. These are moral or ethical decisions and are often perfectly sensible - I mean even I have "issues" with fois gras and veal although not quite enough to stop me ordering them at every opportunity. Strict vegetarians - those who fill their miserable empty days with salads and nut roasts and bloody Quinoa - these are people who see food only as a necessary evil. The kind of people who love the attention they get being able to grumble about the poor choice at whatever restaurant they happen to have been tricked into going to, and then proceed to pick at their meal half-heartedly all evening while muttering about their waistline. Stick-thin health freaks who survive on wheatgrass smoothies and wear their vegetarianism as a self-righteous badge of clean living, and yet have to supplement their apparently perfect diet with artificial protein pills and vitamins. Vegetarians do not, on the whole, like food. Anyone who really enjoyed eating would stay away from wheatgrass, for a start. And don't even get me started on vegans.
So much the same can usually be said of vegetarian restaurants. First of all, there aren't that many of them, as most British vegetarians would rather stay at home with a pack of Linda McCartney sausages than be seen to eat in a public place. And secondly, they are usually glorified health food shops with a self-service counter groaning with soggy cous cous salads and cowpats of spinach quiche, with the same odd smell of ludicrously expensive dietary supplements, fennel seeds and sadness.
Kastoori is different. You know it's different because when you sit down at a table in what is at first glance a bog-standard local curry house, you are presented with a menu which contains none of the usual suspects of high-street dining - Masala, Korma, Vindaloo, etc. Instead you notice exotic ingredients like green bananas, dosas and puris, each with a short description of the flavours involved and perhaps a short explanation of the history of the dish. Many are family heirlooms, carried over from their roots as forced exiles of Idi Amin's Uganda and mixed with further influences from their native Gujurat. What you don't notice is the lack of meat.
We started with what is fast becoming a locally famous house speciality - Dahi Puri. Described on the menu as "Taste bombs", they were bite-sized crispy pastry casings with a chick-pea, spiced potato and yoghurt sauce inside. You are told to eat them in one go - it gets very messy otherwise - and as the flavours dissolve in your mouth I defy you not to close your eyes and moan with delight. They are simply incredible.
After we'd come under fire from a couple more taste bombs each (sorry), the mains arrived - a thick aubergine curry containing huge black chillis and plenty of coriander, (not always available - this is one of the rotating daily specials), panir cheese stuffed with mint and coriander in a lovely creamy sauce, and a Dosa so big it actually overhung both sides of our table, served with a rich coconut chutney. All of it was nothing less than excellent, especially the Dosa which had a quite unexpected vinegary/herby taste and despite its generous size disappeared very quickly. I'm no expert on Gujurati cuisine but I know practiced, expert cooking when I see it, and Kastoori has yet to disappoint on that front.
As if vegetarians needed anything more to be self-righteous about, they also have one of the most exciting restaurants in South London to call their own. But let's not do Kastoori a disservice by calling it vegetarian. It is a brilliant restaurant by any standards.