I didn't set out to bang the bongos for a rigidly vegetarian diet, but after the carnivorous excesses of Christmas, even those of us who have no qualms about looking our lunch in its furry or feathered face need an occasional rest from meat eating. So where does that leave us?
The wholefood movement (an unfortunately operative word) still holds sway in many veggie restaurants. It may be the Esperanto of cooking, but at least you can be certain it'll do you good. Anywhere else, you may be lucky with the Hobson's meat-free choice on a more appetising polyglot menu. Occasionally and unexpectedly the two combine wonderfully. Buckwheat pasta with Savoy cabbage sounds like something from a Hackney co-operative household but tasted fantastic when I had it at Zafferano, the Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge, London. Yet this was an aberration. The restaurant subsequently admitted it doesn't go out of its way to please vegetarians because they are fussy eaters and don't drink enough. Alastair Little has joked that he doesn't always have a vegetarian dish on his menu in case it encourages them.
This, despite the growing number of professed vegetarians. Which must mean that all of them either don't go to restaurants, are lying, or don't mind always having two starters of pasta when they go out, because exclusively vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. Most are joyless and cramped, open only for lunch and very early suppers, non-smoking, unlicensed and stuck in the five-tricks-with-a-chickpea and a piece-of-quiche mould. So when I first went to Heather's, a caff serving a vegetarian buffet, I was amazed and impressed by the spread they put on: colourful, varied and a pleasure, not a penance, to eat.
They've grown out of their tiny, out-of-the-way premises and moved into downtown Deptford, opposite St Nicholas's Church, one of the few other local attractions. Much of the work of converting this khazi of a south London pub into the new Heather's was done under the LETs scheme, a utopian alternative currency, whereby skills are exchanged for tokens which can be redeemed by other participants. When we went, this didn't translate into a stream of hippy carpenters and aromatherapists queuing up for their meals in exchange for their labour. And, though Heather's offers a free soft drink (which could be home-made lemonade or a kiwi and ginger fizz) to anyone arriving by bicycle, the other customers looked as if they'd done nothing more energetic than get out an A-Z.
This background information came from Heather's cheery newsletter, which announces forthcoming events, the women-only nights, the "imaginative entrepreneurial vegetarian husband and wife team of chartered accountants" and a commitment to a thriving alternative community invisible among the surrounding council flats.
The bleakness of the surroundings was dispelled as soon as we opened the door into a large room newly painted white and green, attractively furnished, covered with prints for sale and filled with the rhythms of African jazz.
In the centre of the room is the buffet. Not a display of clodhopping beany dishes, but abundant and bright. Predominant colours were orange and green. The prevailing spice seemed to be ginger, though there were plenty of others, judiciously used. The cooking certainly comes from the wholefood school but it knows when to lighten up for the sake of good taste.
After the excellent celeriac and ginger soup, there were dips: tahini, baba ghanoush and a perky guacamole. Vibrantly coloured salads included green beans with caramelised onions and cashew nuts, carrot with green coriander and ginger, and beetroot and mango. There were little tarts of walnut pastry filled with caramelised red onion. Warm, herby brown rolls came with the soup.
Of the hot dishes, the pumpkin and leeks easily beat friable crumble of Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower and sweetcorn, and rather plain couscous, and the subtly curried cabbage and mung beans lost by a whisker. The limitations of each were compensated for by the variety. What was missing? Chickpeas, brown rice and tofu and anything that called itself by that dreaded word in the veggie lexicon - "bake". No quiche, either.
Until pudding, everything had been dairy free. With Sussex pond pudding, they let rip with the cholesterol. Suet pastry made with white flour (though not beef suet) was filled with buttery lemon juices and peel and surrounded with cream. The butter floated on the top in golden globules. This easily eclipsed a sugar-free walnut tart and hazelnut shortbread with spicy apple. The children's estimable fruit salad included peaches and pineapple, and yes, thank goodness, no banana. There will be those who are still put off by the context. Heather's is no smoking, as yet unlicensed and gently peddles an alternative way of life as well as vegetarian food. But it's one of the most varied and cheering spreads I've seen for pounds l0 a head, and the enterprise is more life-affirming than any chain restaurant. If you're getting on your bike to Deptford, wear a Peruvian hand-knit (the central heating's not that hot), tuck in and enjoy. It'll do you good
Heather's, 74 McMillan Street, London SE8 (0l81-691 6665). Open Sun lunch, Tue-Sun dinner. Buffet pounds 10, children, pounds 5. Unlicensed; corkage 60p. No credit cards