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Review: vegan pub food by Ponga Foods at Drakes Pub in Maidstone

PUBLISHED: 11:17 11 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:17 11 May 2018

Vegan pizza? Yes please! (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Vegan pizza? Yes please! (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Steph Hinton, the self-styled Alternative Chef, has created a haven of gluten-free vegan delights in Maidstone

In a world where allergies, food intolerances and personal and religious choices are increasingly dictating what many of us can eat, dining out with family and friends can often be a bit of a nightmare if one or more of the group falls into any of the above categories.

Not in Maidstone, where Steph Hinton, the self-styled Alternative Chef, has moved on from her Fortify Café days in the High Street to open Ponga Foods at Drakes pub on Fairmeadow, where you can now enjoy the best plant-based pub grub in town.

The New Zealander, who left her homeland when she was 19, used to drink at Drakes with friends and got chatting to landlord Rabbs, who told her the pub’s (tiny) kitchen had been empty for three years and that she was welcome to re-open it.

KEN MAY 18 Review PongaKEN MAY 18 Review Ponga

Despite then working as a soya-milk cheese producer, Steph decided the opportunity was too good to pass by and she’d bring her company name to Drakes. Ponga is the Maori term for the silver fern that is her home country’s national symbol, so some eight months ago Ponga Foods @Drakes was launched – on the eve of the Maidstone Vegan Festival (taking place on 28 July this year: www.maidstoneveganfestival.co.uk).

She had 63 customers in for dinner in three and a half hours – and it’s just Steph (and a kitchen porter) in the minute kitchen she has kitted out herself and where she uses only organic fruit and veg, the peelings heading back into the pot for stock.

With space to plate up just four dishes at a time, 45 diners is her real limit, although that grows in summer when the courtyard is up and running. But whatever the weather the pub has been full since that memorable first day, with ‘Veganuary’ turning out to be the best January the pub had ever had and owners Pleisure Pubs rather pleased with the changes.

You can even indulge in a cherry bakewell 'cheezecake' served with soya whipped cream (photo: Manu Palomeque)You can even indulge in a cherry bakewell 'cheezecake' served with soya whipped cream (photo: Manu Palomeque)

She calls her style ‘slow food for busy people’ and as it’s a pub not a restaurant, her customers are encouraged to have a few drinks and socialise while their dishes are being prepared to order.

Drake’s is a bare-brick and beam 17th-century pub with rustic wood tables, beer kegs as side tables, it’s dog and child friendly and you’d wear your jeans not a suit – this is a casual experience, a place for sharing great food with friends.

Everything on the menu is gluten free so Steph, who is gluten-intolerant as well as vegan, uses specialist bakeries for her flatbreads, garlic bread and pizza bases.

Interiors (photo: Manu Palomeque)Interiors (photo: Manu Palomeque)

She has had families coming up to thank her for making a family meal possible again, as no one has felt left out or a burden, and indeed my vegetarian daughter (who is also gluten-intolerant) and son-in-law who are with me are quite emotional at the thought of both being able to eat anything they like on the menu, not just the usual one or two dishes.

Warned that portions are generous and the pizzas are 12in, we still order far too much and are grateful for the offer of doggie bags at the end. But oh, the food is so good!

We start with the lightest, tastiest potato bread dough balls served with a garlic mayonnaise dip that is so yummy we are soon begging Steph to make it as a separate product to buy (her ultimate dream is for Ponga Foods to develop as a range of delis). Apparently the secret is the use of chickpea brine (‘aquafaba’) in place of egg whites.

Exteriors of the pub (photo: Manu Palomeque)Exteriors of the pub (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Then there are her fabulous ‘cheezes’ – our favourites a Kent Gold and an apple wood-smoked ‘mockzrella’ that My Gorgeous Daughter dubs ‘more like cheese than actual cheese.’ Steph’s chilli jam and a micro mezze salad accompany.

To follow we share two pizzas – the Ponga Pepper Stake which, with its chipotle barbecue sauce base, black pepper-braised soya chunks, red onion and cheddar cheese finished with a swirl of chipotle mayo has all the character of a classic pepperoni but so much more depth and intensity of flavour.

The second is a picture on a plate – The Magikal Mushroom Experience puts you on a taste and visual high, with an exotic mushroom mix on a garlic pizza base with more of that fabulous apple wood-smoked ‘mockzrella’, red onions finished with thyme leaves and swirls of maple mustard mayo and chilli jam. Mellow, creamy and colourful, it’s my standout dish of the night.

Head chef and owner, Ponga Foods (photo: Manu Palomeque)Head chef and owner, Ponga Foods (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Both pizzas go brilliantly with the big, juicy South African bosstok Pinotage we’re enjoying from the vegan drinks menu that includes a gluten-free Peroni and Curious Apple Cider, three red and three white wines.

On future visits we’re going to try Steph’s loaded nachos, herb-salted chips and the jack fruit burgers which, after long, slow cooking, end up looking like pulled pork.

There are even guilt-free desserts on offer and despite the fact that we are so full, we all love the chocolate and maca brownie with cashew vanilla ice cream. Darkly rich, complex and indulgent, it’s a triumph.

I’ll leave the last word to MGD: “This is ‘wow-factor’ food bursting with world flavours and just made for sharing. It looks so good too it really is the art of the kitchen on a plate.”

The essentials

WHERE: Ponga Foods @Drakes, 9 Fairmeadow, Maidstone ME141JP

07531 279308, www.pongafoods.com, @AlternativeChefSteph

WHAT: Casual, low-key pub offering vegan food

WHEN: Food is served Tue-Sun, 12pm-10pm

HOW MUCH: pizzas £13, jack burger £9, ‘cheezeboard’ £7, puds £6.50

Meet the chef

NAME: Stephanie Hinton

JOB TITLE: Head chef and owner, Ponga Foods

Tell us a bit about you

I have been a chef for 17 years now. I grew up on a farm in New Zealand, trained at Otago Poytecnic as a chef (specialising in patisserie) and have travelled the world cooking since I was 19, working in a lot of different kitchens from cafés to five-star dining. I’ve even worked for some famous chefs in London, including Jamie Oliver and John Torode.

Your main suppliers?

My main local supplier T H Brown and Son, a family business based in Cobham, gets me a lot of great fresh local produce as well as the odd more exotic ingredient (such as mixed wild mushrooms) from the London markets.

Your favourite dish?

My current favourite is our I Love Lambs Kebab Fries because I mean who doesn’t love a good kebab? Especially one that’s cruelty and guilt free!

Top vegan cookery tip?

A good tip for anyone cooking really is to save all your carrot, onion, celery and herb scraps to make your own vegetable stock. It will give all your dishes that extra bit of depth and flavour and also helps to reduce waste, another big love of mine. If you don’t use large amounts of veg, save your scraps in the freezer until needed; the stock can also be frozen down into small containers or ice cube trays for future use.

Key influencers?

When I was first really getting into cooking in my early teens, The Naked Chef aka Jamie Oliver was a huge influence on my cooking style. In my vegan cooking career an amazing American chef, Skye Michael Conroy - also known as the Gentle Chef - really helped me learn about vegan cheesemaking and meat-replacement analogues. I have every one of his books, they are like bibles to me!

Must-have gadget?

My large Magi Mix blender. I use it for so many different recipes. I wouldn’t be without it, in fact I am planning on buying a second one very soon.

Breakfast today?

A chocolate oat milk smoothie with banana, maca and cinnamon.

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