My first regular gig on this paper, nearly 15 years ago, was a column about listed buildings. It ran in the middle pages of the Property section, “below the fold” as we say in the trade. Let’s just say it was a different time – and let’s assume Christopher Howse was busy.
Angela, the then Property Editor, briefed me over the telephone. We were to address suffering readers out in the shires, whose planning application to park a gazebo behind their Georgian rectory had been kiboshed by English Heritage for the umpteenth time. “What we want to know,” she said, fiercely, “is: why’s it listed?”
One of the last places I covered before I got my second call from Angela (“I think we’ve all got the idea by now”) was Chesapeake Water Mill in Hampshire. It’s from 1820, a perfectly good specimen of early industrial architecture – but that’s not why it’s listed. It’s listed because its floorboards come from an American frigate, the USS Chesapeake, captured by the British during the War of 1812 and then sold for parts after six years’ service in the Royal Navy. At the time I wrote about it, it was mothballed and up for sale, its future keenly contested; the heritage police had bumped it up from Grade II to II* in an attempt to keep the vultures at bay.
The floorboards seem to have survived the ensuing years pretty much intact; though I guess it was always going to need a floor of some sort. Anyway, it’s a charming spot. The river Meon surges underneath the building; there’s a little hole thing in front for laundry, witch-trials etc.
Inside is a ramshackle antiques market; Offbeet occupies a series of shed-like spaces and a narrow exposed terrace along one side. On a sunny day it’s a perfect spot for lunch – which is just as well, as it doesn’t open in the evenings. What’s more, it’s not licensed.
Ordinarily, we are reluctant to review restaurants that don’t open in the evenings (and I’m reluctant to darken the doors of restaurants that aren’t licensed). But the thing about Ofbeet – other than the floorboards – is that it’s a remarkably hardcore raw food/wholefood/vegan restaurant in a part of the country where their idea of clean eating is swabbing your cow down before you put it on the grill. How could such a precious, mimsy idea find expression, miles from the nearest fashionista or PR flack, in a realm of scant 4G coverage, where an Instragram story might take literally hours to upload? We had to find out.
I went with my partner and daughter, in search of one of those golden family memories that are said to come back to you, fringed with celestial light, on your deathbed. The juddering bus ride from Fareham station put paid to that; we were all feeling distinctly liverish when we arrived in Wickham’s elegant main square. It’s also fair to say that at least one of us had their guard up about the idea of a vegan lunch.
We did detect a slight odour of cultishness wafting over Offbeet, it’s true. The servers bounced around on the balls of their feet, buttocks clenched for optimal tissue oxygenation, force 10 smiles stapled in place as they listed the often interminable ingredients of this or that dish as if itemising what they’d just got for Christmas. But all the enforced jollity was a nice change from the pious primness of some vegan places (not to mention the gonzoid junk-food ethos of some others).
A sort of jollity characterised the food, too. On the menu it looked as though most dishes were trying to imitate this or that meaty archetype: there was a “Totally Beet Naked Burger”, a “Sweet ’n’ Sour Chic-Ken”, a chilli con carne without the carne and so on. This seemed timid – it also seemed like a more or less baked-in promise of disappointment, as my daughter astutely pointed out. In fact the resemblance proved to be essentially a visual one, as when the great Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo arranged an unseasonal assortment of fruit and veg into a passable likeness of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
So my burger was actually a burger-shaped, but otherwise entirely un-burger-like, arrangement of beetroot, seeds, herbs, pickles, “cashew cheddar” and much more, reclining neatly under a Portobello mushroom “bun”. “Chic‑Ken” turned out to be moreish little golden morsels not unlike south Indian parippu vada, made of various grains and pulses including amaranth and (we assumed) chickpeas, with a fairly classic, if somehow alchemically purified, Chinese take-away-type sweet and sour sauce on the side. “Holey Moley” was a rich and complex bean stew, with bitter chocolate and walnuts. Polenta chips were crisp on the outside but wan and insubstantial on the inside, like they always are.
Puddings were mostly cheese-free “cheesecakes” of several kinds, vivid with fruit, succulent with coconut and prettily strewn with flowers; they do soft, gooey brownies too.
All in all our lunch didn’t feel particularly virtuous; in fact, what came across was a real sense of fun. The food was full of colour and bursting with bold tastes. It was a rare pleasure to encounter so many different ingredients all speaking with their own voices, rather than being subsumed into the common stockpot. The cultures and pickles gave subtlety and complexity to all the rabbity crunch and zing.
As for what it was doing there – well, it was doing a roaring trade, for one thing. They’re opening another one soon. Good luck to them. I’d happily recommend Offbeet to even the most committed carnivore, once in a while. Just steer clear of the potted biographies on the website: one look at all those happy lantern-jawed faces and you’ll be reaching for the crack pipe in no time.