Wednesday, 7 May 2008
When I first heard about Saf thanks to a post by Andrew of the eminently readable Eating Albion blog, my reaction sat somewhere between disbelief and open ridicule. Regular readers will know my position on vegetarians and vegetarian restaurants, but for everyone else here is the comment I left on Andrew's piece:
1. The best vegan restaurants will never serve better food than the best non-vegan restaurants, because taste in Western cooking by and large comes from dairy and animal fat.
2. In a normal restaurant serving the odd vegetarian dish, you can be reasonably sure that dish is judged by the standards of the other dishes, and not just ‘good enough for vegetarian’. See my review of Pearl in Holborn, where my favourite dish (gnocchi and truffles) just happened to be vegetarian. In a pure vegetarian restaurant it will be incredibly difficult - though not impossible - to keep standards consistently high across the menu as your ingredient options are so limited.
3. Any restaurant committing itself to just serving vegan food is already starting with a huge disadvantage, and just by appealing to and satisfying the tiny handful of vegan diners does not really say much about the standard of cooking. If all you’re used to being able to choose is a green salad every time you eat out, I don’t blame you if you’re excited about SAF.
4. There are good vegetarian/vegan restaurants but the successful ones are generally from an ethnic background where meat eating is culturally more unusual. See Kastoori. Just making French food and taking the butter out is a surefire way to create some pretty bland dishes.
5. That said, I think I owe it to vegans to try out SAF, and I will as soon as I’m back in the UK. I will do my best to keep an open mind, but I’m already not the first to raise a dissenting voice.
So, ill-informed and closed-minded I may be (not my words, the words of a righteous vegan responding to the above comment), but I am a man of my word and so today made a lunchtime visit to Curtain Road to see if it was as terrible as I knew it was going to be.
First impressions were depressingly good. The room is huge - light and airy, with great high ceilings, attractive furniture and a bar stocked with organic vodkas and gins. There's an open kitchen too and I peered in suspiciously, wondering what kind of cooking could be going on in a vegan restaurant.
When the starters arrived there was an even bigger psychological blow - mine was actually rather good. Tasting nothing like the Boursin cheese advertised on the menu it was nevertheless a very tasty trio of herb, tomato and olive flavoured nut paste thingies, kind of a more solid humous. The accompanying crackers were a bit cardboardy but it was all so prettily presented it added up to a reasonably good plate of food. It was all getting dreadfully upsetting.
Fortunately - thank God - things began to fall into place once the starters were over with. My main course of wild mushroom ravioli looked the part and had clearly been cooked with great skill, but there was something slightly wrong with the pasta. It was anaemic tasting and the sauce had a very strange film on it. At once I decided it was basically a dish crying out for some animal product. Still, full marks for effort and if you're a vegan it's probably the best pasta dish you're ever likely to taste, if that's any kind of compliment.
My dessert, again, was a prettily composed slice of Ganache Tart with berries on top, served with a zingy fruit sorbet. It was perfectly edible, with a good smooth texture and probably as good a chocolate tart you're going to get that doesn't have any chocolate in it. But I return to my same point - this would have been fantastic made with a shedload of butter. These chefs can definitely cook and I couldn't help thinking how great they'd be if they were let loose on some fois gras or a beef carpaccio.
But then that's not really the point of Saf. Saf is a vegan restaurant, self-consciously healthy and worthy, and you shouldn't really be expecting the same taste sensations as somewhere using butter and cream in their sauces. And despite the largely bland food, I actually can see myself going back - it's healthy, attractive and different and the worst you can say about it is that all the talk of Himalayan salt and Ionised tap water can get gratingly pretentious. What's more, the knowledge that all this appealing food is actually good for you means there's none of the pangs of residual guilt from a lunchtime steak and chips or salt beef beigel - that is, unless you decide to load up on the excellent house cocktails and do damage to yourself that way instead. I can recommend the Spiced Apricot Martini, a superb invention.
So, and admitting this will most likely send me spiralling into a cycle of self-loathing and depression, but I liked Saf. The dishes don't quite taste as good as a conventional restaurant but they're a damn sight better than they have any right to be thanks to the extraordinary skills on display from the kitchen staff, and stepping out of a restaurant after a three-course meal feeling like you've actually done yourself some good for a change was a delightfully unique experience. I will be back - I wonder if they can make me a vegan humble pie?