The one fillip to this bizarre experiment (and it is becoming, day by day, more bizarre) was the knowledge that Saf, the respected raw vegan restaurant in the east end, was just around the corner from my flat. The consolation that I was not the only person in this city who thought the concept of such a diet was anything but ludicrous offered me solace in those darker moments when I found myself seduced even by the lusty, crass allure of the kebab shop opposite. Let me tell you, that nondescript gobbet of flesh might as well be a rib of wagyu beef when, at midnight, you realise that you have eaten nothing hot, nor proteinaceous, nor truly delicious, for 10 days.
Of course, I had received mixed reviews about Saf. Some said it was wonderful, some said it was dire. (I’m not sure why I just wrote that. Surely the term “mixed reviews” intimates that opinions differed on the subject, so quite why I had to emphasize this in such a tautological manner I don’t know. It must be the lack of protein. (NB lack of protein may lead to short temper and attention span)). But somewhere that so gauchely serves nothing but raw vegan food is always going to cause some controversy, and so off I went for lunch, in the hope that this eternal nightmare of salad and fruit (I’m afraid the will to ‘try new things’ disappeared along with my will to live) could be tempered by a lunch that was more remarkable than what I had been eating for the previous week. I wasn’t entirely disappointed.
The restaurant itself sits on Curtain Road, just off Old Street. A long, clean room with a conservatory at the end, it is a pleasant space, but on this occasion it was also a very empty space. Perhaps Wednesday lunchtime is never the most rollocking of shifts in any restaurant, yet it struck me that Saf was plugging one small demographic. Of the estimated 180,000 vegans in the UK, let’s reckon there are 15,000 in London (a generous assumption; surely most of them live in the woods). Then let’s assume that of that 15,000, 1500 live in the catchment area of Saf (a more realistic figure – vegans tend to migrate to Hackney). Of that 1500, the number of them that are going to shaft £30 on lunch midweek is, well – there were about 5 of us in there.
I started with the beetroot ravioli with cashew herb ricotta (pictured above). It arrived quickly, as well it should have done, being raw (though there was some suspicious sizzling coming from the kitchen). It did not arrive, however, with the asparagus, carrot and fennel salad, balsamic figs and pumpkin oil, as promised by the menu. Instead it was accompanied by a pile of celeriac remoulade. This went completely over my head, as I had forgotten what it said on the menu (did I mention short attention span?), and so I piled into it uncomplainingly, being a big fan of remoulade anyway. The first mouthful was like nothing I’d ever tasted before, and as such was rather alarming. My recollection of the menu being as it was, the lump of stodge gluing together the two slices of beetroot was a complete mystery, and like putting any mysterious matter in one’s mouth, unpleasant. Yet it won me over. Whether this was down to the rich meatiness of the filling, or my fetish for beetroot in any way, shape, or form, I don’t know, but the dish was a great success, and as fulfilling a thing as I had eaten for some time.
Next I ordered a Pad Thai of courgette noodles with enoki mushrooms and mung shoots. Once again the menu had misled me, there being no mung shoots, replaced instead by manges tout (though this deception also escaped my notice until I looked at the menu later that day). It was pretty standard nosh for an experienced raw vegan like myself, consisting of those staple flavour-boosters of chilli, sesame, lime and coriander. It did, however, come with the added nudge of chipotle sauce, its rich smokiness adding a great deal of interest to an otherwise familiar plate. But something smelled fishy. Literally. And it was making me gag. It transpired that this rancid piscine whiff was coming from the seaweed that lined the bowl. It was like eating raw vegan food whilst someone wafted last month’s sushi under my nose, and it ruined any enjoyment of an otherwise tidy and well-conceived dish.
So, as pleonastically predicted, Saf is a bit of a mixed bag. There is no doubting the inventiveness of the food, nor the skill in the not-cooking. For a vegan it is a triumph that such an impressive restaurant exists. But strip away the context and focus on the food and the food alone, and there is little that sticks with me besides the stench of seaweed clinging to my nostrils and the memory of the waiter’s insistence on calling me ‘mate’.