Much like with Pham Sushi, I've walked past Carnevale for years but until last week had never been inside. I'd heard that it was good, but my problem was that it was vegetarian. Don't get me wrong - I am happy to eat veggie meals and often do so at home. But in a restaurant I can't help feeling that meat or fish offer far better value for money, and also often seem to feature in more interesting/challenging dishes.
The place -- which doubles up as a deli and offers extensive takeaway options at lunchtimes -- is tiny, but tardis-like leads onto a glorious little conservatory, filled with plants and topped off with a glass roof. Watching the waiter and some other diners through the window into the main room, I pretend that I am in some warm Mediterranean court yard rather than in a still decidedly wintery, stormy London.
The menu, which I am told changes about once a month, features about half a dozen starters and as many mains, with surprisingly few of the dishes including cheese and not a nut-roast in sight (the more modern veggie staple, the risotto, does make an appearance though, as do vegetarian sausages and mash).
We weren't overly hungry and, eyeing our fellow diners' huge plates, decided to share three starters (£5.25 each) and skip on the mains altogether. This raises no eyebrows, and the service is generally pretty good, the only quibble being the non-arrival of the tap water (though to be fair we only asked for it once).
The ravioli stuffed with ricotta and pumpkin was scattered prettily and wholesomely with puy lentils, parmesan and herbs. I've never had puy lentils with pasta before, but it worked well. The baked courgette was our favourite, stuffed with salty halloumi, refreshing lemon and herbs and served with a huge salad of oranges, non-overpowering fennel and crunchy almonds (must try those in a salad at home instead of pumpkin seeds).
The third starter was the husband's choice and one I predictably didn't like so much. Quinoa is a South American seed and to my taste buds a close cousin of the cous cous, which I usually don't like. Here, it's supposed to come in a cake-form with wild mushrooms, spinach and chilli, but the overall effect is more pile than pattie and the accompanying rocket is a bit oily for more liking. The apricot and ginger chutney is a nice touch of colour/flavour on the top though.
The drinks list offers short but interesting selections in most categories, from home-made lemonade to unusual beers, elderflower-based cocktails and organic wines. We opted for a half litre carafe of the perfectly drinkable house red (£7.50), which enabled us to keep the entire dinner, including service (which is not included) to just over 25 quid -- not a bad bargain, even if there was no meat involved. Plus it all tasted very healthy and worthy, and I loved the little conservatory. But had we been hungrier and gone with the £11.50 main courses, I fear I would left thinking of how much raw fish I could have scoffed at Pham for the price of veggie sausage'n'mash.
So will we return? Perhaps, but probably only if we have some vegetarians in tow.
Carnevale, 135 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JL; Tel: 020 7250 3452; Tube: Barbican; www.carnevalerestaurant.co.uk