Food & Drink: Eating Out - Don't mess with my tofu

EATING OUT: Terre a Terre in Brighton has been acclaimed as one of Britain's best veggie restaurants. But is it just trying too hard?
ON PAPER, it looked like a grand day out. Bowl down to Brighton, jewel of the south coast, for Saturday lunch at Terre a Terre, acclaimed by several recent surveys as one of Britain's best vegetarian restaurants. A bracing seaside walk, a warming feast of top-quality, health-giving tuck, all in the company of one of Brighton's most enthusiastic residents, the writer Geoff Dyer who, like Julie Burchill and Fatboy Slim, has recently moved there and is determined to make the rest of us feel jealous.

But trips to English seaside resorts, like visits to vegetarian restaurants, tend to represent the triumph of hope over experience. My travelling companion Andy and I arrived to find the town in the grip of one of the year's worst storms, a real pier-ripper which meant that our journey from station to restaurant had to be conducted at a horizontal sprint.

Terre a Terre is very near the seafront, at the foot of one of the shopping streets which skirt The Lanes, and nothing about its sleek plate-glass frontage indicates that within, here be vegans. The interior is slightly more wholegrain, albeit in the modern style, with walls painted deep shades of orange and tobacco, and a forest-load of stripped pine: the floors, chairs, tables and even children's high- chairs are made of the stuff. A mixed crowd of young families, women shoppers and student types makes for a relaxed atmosphere, and there's also a smoking section and a bar, indicating an allegiance to vegetarianism's hedonistic wing.

So far so good. Then we got to the menus. There are two, naffly tagged "Daytime Delights" and "Evening Excitement", and they offer few fixed points for the uninitiated. Instead, a giddying selection of eccentric, globally inspired dishes swims before the eyes. From Tarator Taleggio Crostini to Arepas Mojo, it's a list which reads rather like Chelsea's starting line-up (only without Leboeuf, naturally).

Ingredients seem to have been assembled without regard for how well they might harmonise - why would anyone think that a warm poached egg, for example, would improve a dish of chargrilled aubergine, minted haloumi, and roasted red pepper? And each description is so long, typically running to five lines and about 12 ingredients, that we found ourselves unable to concentrate long enough to read to the end. Maybe we've simply eaten too much junk food. Our waiter seemed equally at sea, and had to refer to a crib-sheet to account for some of the more recherche ingredients, such as moo moo balls (of which more later).

We started with a basket of freshly prepared, if rather greasy, bread crisps, made with lavash, an unleavened Lebanese bread, dusted with ground spices. For dipping came Zhuganoush, a grey paste which apparently featured smoked aubergine, though its compacted texture and bitterness indicated that it was more or less unleavened tahini. Better, just, was a starter of deep-fried tofu cubes, marinated in hoi sin sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Geoff and Andy were so surprised to encounter tofu with any kind of flavour that they were prepared to overlook the woolly texture and Chinese-takeaway aftertaste.

Given the variability of our starters, we decided it would be best to order three main courses and share them. Our waiter warned us that the Smoked Sakuri Soba Salad was very smoky, which could well have been a coded way of tipping us off that it wasn't very nice. If so, he was right on both counts. Diving into a towering heap of buckwheat noodles, threaded with long ribbons of courgette and carrot, we chor- used "smoky!" and stopped eating. Toasted sesame oil had been applied with too heavy a hand, and the salad was surrounded by cubes of smoked tofu, cunningly prepared to taste like pork scratchings.

Next up came something called krackers, griddled flatbread wraps filled with moo moo balls, and surrounded by rubbly tabbouleh and various luminous pickles. The name promised something crispy, but these krackers were soggy, like a takeaway tortilla left out in the rain, an impression not helped by the fact that they were served in a paper bag. Moo moo balls turned out to be a near-relative of the falafel, deep-fried and made of rice flour, herbs and spices. I suspect they were an invention of the house; if so, the name is unfortunate, as these slimy green boluses could well have already passed through the digestive system of a ruminant. Geoff though, was still determined that we should enjoy our trip, and became unaccountably enthusiastic. "I love it - this is my kind of scoff," he raved. "But then, I love mush."

Our final dish, a tapas selection, was a cartwheel-sized assembly of just about everything on the menu, an insane mismatch which resembled a one-stop harvest festival. Like our other two main courses, it was a vegan option, and like them, it came dusted with chopped herbs, slick with olive oil, and daubed with violently orange sauce. "Bung it on, they're bound to like something", seemed to be the philosophy behind the selection, which included potato salad, noodles, ciabatta, tortilla, and much, much more, interspersed with all manner of mystery salads. It looked zingy and colourful, like the plastic models of meals you get in the windows of Japanese restaurants, but tasted disappointingly zing- free.

The puddings were better - a moist lemon and almond cake, and a vegan option of poached pear with soya milk ice-cream - but again, pointless elaboration had prevailed, with all manner of additional sprinklings. The name Terre a Terre implies earthy, honest wholefood, but this wasn't whole food, it was little-bitty food, space food, designed for Vulcans, not for vegans.

At around pounds 20 a head (without alcohol), our meal wasn't too expensive, and all those healthy proteins left us with plenty of energy to battle the lashing winds on our seaside promenade. But I'm mystified as to how Terre a Terre can so regularly be nominated as one of Britain's best vegetarian restaurants. Next time I go to Brighton, I'll go in summer, and I'll definitely go straight to the beach.

Terre a Terre, 71 East Street, Brighton (01273 729051), 12pm- 10.30pm Tues-Sun (6pm-10.30pm Mon). Disabled access. All cards