I tried Exeter's trendy vegan restaurant and was left shocked

-Credit: (Image: Mary Stenson/DevonLive)
-Credit: (Image: Mary Stenson/DevonLive)

The word 'vegan' seems to provoke some strong feelings for many people. For some, it's the catch-all answer to issues of health, the environment and animal rights, while others view it as an overly-restrictive diet.

But when I visited an Exeter restaurant, which proudly advertises itself as a vegan establishment, it didn't feel like a divisive term at all. On a Wednesday afternoon, customers at The Cheeky Vegan were a variety of different ages, from a young family enjoying a milkshake to two elderly women raving about the lentil soup and sourdough bread.

The Cheeky Vegan was first opened in April 2022 by then 21-year-old Emma Bates, with the hopes of bringing something "a bit younger and cooler to the city". Around 18 months later, the restaurant had closed for unknown reasons.

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It remained empty for several months before being saved by Kenneth Yau, who reopened the business in March this year. Speaking to DevonLive earlier this week, he said running a restaurant or café had been a dream of his for more than 20 years.

"It's always been one of those dreams that you talk about but don't do," he said. "Mortgage and kids kind of took over. At some point last year, I was at a crossroads career-wise and I thought do I stay in the corporate lane or try something different?

"It just so happened that this was up for sale. Being vegan, I didn't want to take over a business and try to turn it vegan so it was ideal. It's a cross between a long held dream and a mid life crisis."

Kenneth Yau is the new owner of The Cheeky Vegan opposite Exeter Cathedral -Credit:The Cheeky Vegan
Kenneth Yau is the new owner of The Cheeky Vegan opposite Exeter Cathedral -Credit:The Cheeky Vegan

Kenneth says there's a number of reasons why he became vegan around six years ago but the main one was for the animals. He says he was struggling to reconcile being upset by the death of a beloved pet cat but not by the killing of other animals.

He said: "A beloved cat died a few years before I went vegan. I was thinking through why I was upset about that and not other animals. One day I thought 'you know what? I'm just going to give this a go and if the only good thing that happens is I eat more vegetables, that's a good thing'."

Under its previous ownership, The Cheeky Vegan's menu items were dubbed "vegan junk food" but Kenneth says they've changed things up now to be more balanced. While burgers, fries and milkshakes are still on the menu, there's plenty of lighter options such as soups, salads and a range of specials.

Like many people of my generation, I have dabbled in a lot of 'accidentally' vegan and vegetarian food, whether that's making dairy-free brownies for a lactose intolerant friend or taking anything but cow's milk in my coffee. But I've always felt a little intimidated by the prospect of really immersing myself in veganism but now was my chance.

The Quarter Pounder Burger and Fries from The Cheeky Vegan -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
The Quarter Pounder Burger and Fries from The Cheeky Vegan -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

By the time I arrived at The Cheeky Vegan, I was pretty hungry so I opted for the quarter pounder (£9.95) and fries (£2.50) with mayo. On the menu, it says the burger is a "plant-based 'beef' patty with salad and a piquant burger sauce in a vegan brioche bun".

It might be a tiny kitchen but the service was super quick. I tucked in and was immediately surprised by how much I enjoyed it. While I had of course willingly ordered a vegan burger, there wasn't much noticeable difference between that and a meat burger. If anything, it was slightly more tender and didn't have the kind of 'plant-y' taste that I was anticipating.

The patty was complimented by the sauce which gave it a bit of a kick, some crunchy salad and a soft bun. The fries were the classic kind of fries you'd expect with a burger, with a nice balance of crispy and fluffy.

I was also presented with a range of specials, including the bruschetta with fresh and sundried tomatoes. This was perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire meal as I don't normally enjoy tomatoes but these ones were soft and flavourful. The sourdough - which is homemade - was very fluffy and probably my favourite part of the whole experience.

Specials at The Cheeky Vegan -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
Specials at The Cheeky Vegan -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

That's why I was buzzing when I was offered the Turkish lentil soup, which was also served with that glorious sourdough. The soup was another unexpected star of the show and would likely be my go-to light lunch if it pops up on the specials board again.

By this point I was pretty much defeated but was able to sample some of the other dishes, including falafel and quinoa salad, the Greek salad with vegan feta and spicy sweetcorn fritters. Salad isn't typically something I would order but it was very refreshing.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable experience and one I would recommend to everyone, not just vegans. In fact, I'm already planning to return with family members who are about as far away from vegan as you can get. Not only is it a tasty, varied menu but the location, right opposite the Cathedral, is the perfect spot for a light lunch.

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