It’s the first restaurant in the UK where the bar is 100% gluten-free. The menu is, too. If you consider food as ‘medicine’, then The Willow is the place for you
We are so much more aware these days of the way in which our diet informs our health. But, even with the likes of veganism on the rise, it’s quite the norm for diners with food sensitivities or allergies to feel alienated when eating out.
Not so at The Willow, a ‘food as medicine’ style restaurant and bar near Kingston. You’ll find dairy-free and grain-free options as well as vegetarian, vegan, paleo, low carb, low sugar, protein rich and low-FODMAP dishes. Importantly, the entire place is gluten-free, so coeliacs don’t have to dine under the spectre of cross-contamination.
“The idea to marry an integrative treatment clinic with a full service ‘food as medicine’ styled restaurant and community space has been a dream of mine for some time,” says founder Dr Gale Zappacosta. “Empowering people to live better lives has always been a strong force in my life.”
Indeed, its forward-thinking attitudes seems somehow out of step with its location in the surburban hinterlands of Norbiton. The place has so much potential that it wouldn’t look out of place in London or New York.
So, what about the food. I did toy with the idea of bringing someone who was cynical about the concept of ‘healthy-eating’, but, in the end, I elected to bring a friend who avoids gluten, dairy and caffeine but who adores meat and alcohol. She reveled in not having to apologise for her dietary preferences and loved her lemon and garlic free range poussin main (£16). I enjoyed watching her get excited about the dessert menu as many of the options are Vegan Society approved. She tucked into her coconut and tonka bean brulee with gusto. Note: each pudding only contains around 10g of sugar, far below the norm.
While I enjoyed my vegan falafel burger at the time (£15), on reflection I thought that the accompanying vegetables (beetroot, squash and kale) didn’t stand up to scrutiny and could have done with more flavour. Also, I noted that many of the desserts are made with coconut sugar so if you don’t like coconut, your choice is severely limited.
There’s no denying that the concept of ‘healthy eating’ is going to put some people off. In that sense, The Willow does have its work cut out. But it does do a valiant job and there is plenty on the menu for die-hard meat-eaters such as steak and lamb shank. Plus, there’s no fake or ersatz food here of the like you’ll find in the free-from section in the supermarkets. That’s to their credit.
Likewise, it’s a common misconception that healthy eating equals abstinence or – worse still – deprivation (a miserable prospect). One doesn’t have to live like a monk to eat well. The light and dark ales (both on tap and bottled) are 100% gluten-free – a first in the UK. You’ll find tipples from well-known craft breweries such as St Peter’s, Brewdog and Hepworth Brewery.
The selection of real and organic wines is impressive, too. I’m a big fan of this growing movement having first been introduced to the concept a few years ago by the team at Albury Vineyard. In case you don’t know, real wines are sulfite-free and can be made without any added yeast. Indeed, the wine we had with our meal was memorably good. In fact, I would go there again simply to work my way through their wine list.
There’s also a kid’s menu with a refreshing choice of (non-dumbed down) options such as a bucket of king prawns with smoked garlic mayo, beef cheeseburger, and fish and chips (most mains from £8). The restaurant also caters for the morning crowd with breakfasts, smoothies and good coffee.
Another point to note: watch ‘their’ space for news of the next batch of courses at The Willow Teaching Kitchen, a fully equipped space where courses will cover topics from colourful salads to gluten-free baking. Chef Shanice Parris – named twice as Raymond Blanc’s gluten-free chef of the year – will be teaching the latter.
Just before we order the bill, I notice a trolley packed full of bottles you’d find in an old-style apothecary. Turns out they are full of alcoholic infusions such as vanilla and coffee infused vodka as well as pear, cinnamon and clove infused rum. Why, oh why, did I bring my car?!
This is my kind of healthy eating, for sure.
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