Founded by John & Ceri Cook, the DIRT brand pioneered a concept of 1st class restaurant food using purely vegetables and fruit. They disrupted the traditional meat-and-two-veg dining culture by proving that good quality vegetable produce prepared by skilled, imaginative chefs doesn’t leave diners feeling that something is missing from their plates. It was a great success and even sceptical omnivores came back for more. For us veggies, it was a Cinderella moment and with no sign of midnight. We were there at the opening night and took every opportunity to get ourselves around such lovely stuff.
In June of this year, John and Ceri announced that they were moving on from DIRT to focus on EMBER and NOOK and sold the business to Stuart Pelham & Gareth O’Hara. Stuart was John’s right hand man at DIRT and regularly manned the stall at Sticky Fingers Street Food in the Brewery quarter. Anyone who’s eaten his beer croquettes knows that the DIRT concept is safe in his hands. Gareth is a long-time colleague of Stuart and a quiet local food hero in his own right.
They’ve since traded at Sticky Fingers and popped up in venues including St. Canna’s and Academy Espresso, as well as hosting veggie and vegan supper clubs at Milk & Sugar Central Square and Waterloo Tea Lakeside. All of those we missed out on so, when we saw a vegan evening come up at Cocorico on a free night, we jumped onto Wriggle and booked immediately, This would actually be our first ever entirely vegan evening meal out and we were curious to see what would be different and whether it would be as good as an evening that culminates in Black Bomber cheddar and bara brith.
Cocorico is a nice venue but doesn’t keep a wine list, however, the DIRT team had brought some pleasant vegan wines which were on offer at a reasonable mark up. The front of house team were very congenial, looking out for our needs and efficiently dispensing each of the following dishes to a bunch of eager people.
Celeriac croquette, chard, black garlic & chipotle ketchup
First impressions last. This was Mme’s favourite of the night and it was a really, really close second for M. NotLeafy too. Spheres of creamy soft, gently flavoured, mashed celeriac with a perfectly crisp crumb coating. They were topped with crispy fried chard and, despite what we call ourselves, we’d unfalteringly recommend it to all you other leaf haters out there. Same M.O. as DIRT’s famous crispy kale; different flavour, just as enticing. What really made this dish though, was the podium of chipotle & black garlic ketchup. Mayo tempers the fiery harshness of chipotle paste but the addition of black garlic adds umami and a fruity sweet/sour that brings them together even more harmoniously. This is one of those sauces that makes you stop eating and look up at your dining partner to see if they are having a moment too, pleeease make it again guys.
Mushroom pate watercress pesto, sourdough, beer girolles
The paté was a savoury, umami-rich mushroom paste. Without the creamy clout of animal fat, the mushrooms were better able to speak for themselves, tiny pickled girolles providing a nice zing and texture contrast and micro-herbs and the pesto giving spikes of big flavours. Our only niggle was that the number of sourdough slices wasn’t quite sufficient to spread the pate sensibly on top, instead we had to treat it like a dip and scoop it up in large dollops. Another slice would have made it last longer too!
Curried carrot mung bean masala coriander oil
This was M. NotLeafy’s dish of the night. Curried carrot was nothing like you might imagine and quite sublime. The heritage carrots, a deeper purple than Ian Gillan, were gently roasted with a soft bite. The mung bean masala was an amazing stew of the beans in a rich, savoury tomato gravy without any bitterness and a tickle of spice that slowly crept up into a serious whack. M. NotLeafy has his own ideas about how a perfect dish of home-made baked beans should be and, strangely, this was it, albeit with micro beans. It certainly gave us food for thought in using mung beans, which are incredibly high in protein.
Barbecue corn ribs, harissa, pickled shallots, pine nuts
This was a clever dish made by slicing a corn cob down its length into wedges so there are just 3 or 4 rows of kernels on each wedge of cob. They were artfully grilled and coated with a sweet, sticky harissa sauce. There was only one was to eat them and our fingers were straight in there. Delicious and definitely more beard and makeup friendly than the traditional whole cob. Bitter frisée lettuce and tomato salad made contrast with the sweet sauce and tiny pieces of chopped, roasted pine nuts added the signature pique of interest.
Pear, beetroot sorbet, pistachio and elderberry crumb, pear and vanilla jelly
A skilful and thoroughly enjoyable dessert. Pears were nice and firm, the agar jelly was an ideal texture and the pistachio and elderberry crumb added sharpness and crunch. Star of the show was the beetroot sorbet which captured all the fruity and sweet aspects of the root, skipping the earthy notes which wouldn’t have been appropriate for the rest of the dish.
The trademark dirt carrot this time came in two flavours, blueberry and orange, (silver and gold respectively) both were great, and both had noticeable fruit in them, the orange being in the form of zest. The quality of the chocolate was particularly good and extended to the chocolate soil which we could not leave in its box.
The last three years have been like an awakening for us, so many good chefs are now making food of real quality and imagination that’s suitable for those who do not eat meat. Despite some who choose to snub us, we are now almost spoilt for choice. This plant-only feast shows what can be done if you only have the mettle to do it.
Our expectations were high, but would we miss egg/dairy? Absolutely not, and what a joy it is to have your expectations exceeded in a year of superlative meals. Vegans are now well catered for in the fast food arena but there are only a few local venues offering this kind of fine dining vegan menu and none of those we’ve tried are up to this standard (enjoyable though they were).
DIRT are at the New Drovers in Llanelli in January but we hope they’ll be back in Cardiff or nearby for February. Vegan or vegetarian, fine food is fine food and we’ll be back for more.