I want my next birthday at Kensington’s Whole Foods. Despite being a regular worshipper among the Stoke Newington congregation, and occasionally making a pilgrimage to Camden’s branch, I only hit this one up recently – and it’s immense. If you’re a fan of artisan food and reassuringly rip-off prices, it’s the promised land, a Toys R Us-sized warehouse of sustenance. Upstairs, in a kind of airport departure hall layout is a series of eateries and among them 100% botanical (ie vegan) joint Saf. I’ll let the menu do the talking.
No actually, that would be lazy. And dangerous. While a quick glance at the ingredients – beansprouts, tofu, chickpea – will always have a certain segment of the population firing jibes about kaftan-clad patchouli Earth mothers and fire-jugglers with white dreads, I’m getting more and more about ditching the meat and the processed – even if I’ve got nowhere near the commitment or desire to actually abstain. And besides, some of my best friends know vegans. So somewhere like Saf should be applauded, right, for providing gourmet vegan food and helping gradually shift these choices away from people that live with the circus, and those that perpetuate that myth? It’s got to be better than that carbon-counting monument to sanctimonious living and vacuum-packed vomit Otarian anyway.
This is Saf’s second branch. The first, in Shoreditch, has been pretty well received, often with some sort of intro like the one above. It stands for Simply Authentic Food and originates in Turkey (the name is Turkish for “pure”). While they’re not exactly taking over the world yet (we’re still among a very specific portion of the population here, this is hardly Elephant & Castle or even Westfield) it’s worth wondering if something like this could be rolled out nationwide. Do we need a high end vegan chain? Will the UK take to it? Would this be the one? What would Ronald do?
They don’t shy away from their theme. Water came laced with a cucumbrine eel, at first glance a Get Me Out Of Here trial but actually really refreshing, while (no doubt recycled) literature was pinned all over the walls telling us about their lack of animal products, dairy, refined, or processed ingredients. Even the tap water is ionised to increase your body’s alkalinity to a healthier pH. Thanks for that. I’m sure worrying about my pH while still processing enough Strongbow to turn a battleship around is academic, but let’s continue.
From “snacks” we had mushroom dumplings (shitake and wood-ear mushrooms, tofu, carrot and onion with an orange ponzu sauce) and pesto au poivre (cashew cheese, sage pesto, pink peppercorn crust, tomato and balsamic reduction and flaxseed crackers). The former came in a cute box and were striking enough to hold their own, the pungent forest dwellers pulling most of the weight. I had mixed feelings about the latter. At first it was a faux cheesy pâté joy, a tacky and rich brick of unctuousness that stuck to the top of my mouth. The reduction needed some addition but was OK and some unmentioned baked tomato slices were astonishing. Pack them up with a picture of Gary Lineker on the front and you’d get the tubbiest toddler making the switch. Halfway through though, it started to become a chore, and ploughing through it became a bit of an ordeal.
From “main courses”: aromatic green curry at £10.29 (aubergine, mange tout, pineapple, tofu, thai basil, bean sprouts, corriander [sic]) and a buddha bowl for £13.49 (teriyaki glazed tofu, kimpura, kimchee, kale and spicy samba sauce). Both were heated above 48 degrees, according to the menu – I didn’t give a shit but they pointed it out so I thought I’d pass it on. Some of the customers are raw foodies apparently. The curry was the star – somehow creamy and watery simultaneously, a gloopy whirlpool full of crunchy nuggets that may or may not have used coconut milk (is that allowed? I think so. Nothing wrong with a coconut, is there?) . My more spiritual offering combined a pearl barley-ish dome, samba sauce with a cayenne kick and some unimaginative kimchee (not a patch on Hawksmoor’s, but theirs is fermented and I suspect that’s out of bounds here). It also contained tofu, which was as tofu-esque as usual. Can you ever bring that stuff out of its shell? We’ve done everything we can at home – pasted it and pounded it and dressed it up like a tart, coerced it and cuddled it and cut it up every which way – but it still remains as charismatic as Matt Cardle.
All this was washed down (and the cashew cheese took some hosing) with a real protein shake (homemade almond milk, mint, kiwi, pineapple, banana, mint, PURE-XP Wheatgrass and Superfood Elite). I don’t know why they mentioned mint twice (it did taste very minty though), and I don’t know what PURE-XP is (it sounds like a digital radio). Our waitress didn’t know either, and I doubt 80% of the people who buy it do either, but hey, it’s healthy. It must be cos the drink was six quid. Either way, it was mint. It tasted like mushed up minty protein bar.
I hate to come to the wrong and rather obvious conclusion here, but so much of the food served in the end only to remind me how great meat and cheese are. While I enjoyed a night off it all, I was rarely convinced. The cashew and tofu are the heart of the problem here – they’re just not great ingredients. They don’t respond to cutting and chopping, marinading and processing. They’re indifferent to garnish and oblivious to flavour. They may dress for dinner but they won’t engage in polite conversation. Building a gourmet empire on these dodgy foundations is like, if not polishing a turd, then buffing a beansprout. And for that reason, I’m out.
Price per head: £26.50
Soundtrack: Soothing stuff to purchase almond milk to.
Clientele: Affluent west Londoners dipping their toes in the raw food regime.