Restaurant Review: Saf Restaurant, EC2
Daisy Jestico joins the raw food movement at London’s first gourmet vegan restaurant
“I’LL buy you a steak afterwards if you’re still hungry.”
This was the promise I made to my fervently carnivorous husband as we ventured into vegan restaurant Saf to sample the on trend raw food movement.
I have been keen to check out the Shoreditch venue for some time, partly to find out what all the fuss is about but also to give my body an essential spring detox.
Interest in raw food has grown in recent years as veganism has becomes less about sandal wearing hippies and more about a desire to eat healthily and avoid environmentally harmful meat.
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Saf, an acronym for “simple authentic food” and neatly translated as “pure” in Turkish, was the first gourmet vegan restaurant to open in London and year on year wins numerous accolades for best vegetarian restaurant.
Such is its success it has recently opened its second branch in upmarket Kensington.
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Taking my first tentative steps into veganism, the first thing I noticed about the food is how every dish is bursting with colour and painstakingly presented to showcase every ingredient on the plate. This is food stripped down to its natural goodness and dressed up again in a delicate arrangement of flavours to titillate the taste buds.
And what food. I experienced tastes I never knew existed – green mango, white radish and flaxseed sheets for my watercress, ginger and daikon rolls starter.
While my husband’s dish of wild mushrooms, lime juice, coriander, chipotle chilli and flaxseed crackers was also suitably eye opening and mouth-watering.
Both these plates had all been prepared under 48C with none of the ingredients getting within sight of an oven or stove. And what you are left with is a more powerful selection of flavours than any overcooked goat’s cheese tart could possibly provide.
The bold taste, the mix of textures and the heady aromas – these are cleverly thought out dishes genuinely created to delight all the senses. How surprising, then, that you can get all this without a slab of meat in sight?
And not only is the food delicious and healthy, but it is exciting.
The intriguingly named raw bolognaise lasagne for mains piqued our curiosity enough to try it out. The tower of vegetables, rustic pesto and marinara brings about a hearty glow – if not for the obvious nutrient boost then for how surprisingly satisfying gourmet vegan food can be.
Special mention has to be given to the dehydrated tomatoes perched on top, again prepared below 48C using an electric dehydrator with no cooking required.
Dry and brittle to the touch, how these thin wisps of tomato can carry more flavour than the real thing is a mystery, but they are evidently something the restaurant is proud of, as they appear in quite a few of the dishes on the menu.
My dish of black tofu I have to admit was one of the few options that was not raw – but I’m one of those rare people who actually likes tofu and thankfully Saf didn’t let me down.
The texture and flavour was emboldened by the miso cured sauce and set off nicely with the sharp kimchee, a fermented selection of vegetables.
Dessert of vegan chocolate ganache, hemp cracker and red wine caviar was a masterful creation and surely what Saf does best. And if you can put aside the fact that yes, you are actually eating a hemp cracker and yes, you are actually enjoying it, you’ll wonder why you never turned vegan before.
Vegan chocolate often gets a bad reputation, but the smooth taste is retained here with minimal sugar and fats – surely reason enough to enjoy and even more so when it is as luscious as this. And the tiny balls of red wine that erupt in your mouth with every bite were also a fantastic addition, again showcasing the chef’s undeniable ingenuity.
But now to the vegan cheese, made into a paste from the oils of cashew and infused with a selection of either herbs, olive or tomato. This was perhaps the only drawback to an otherwise faultless meal, because, well, it just isn’t cheese and has nowhere near the bite you would like to expect.
Yet we’ll forgive them that when the balsamic figs on the same plate had enough kick to re-energise the appetite. It’s just a shame it was only a garnish.
Saf was bursting with diners on a Monday evening and it is not hard to see why. Not only is the food extraordinary, with the possible exception of the cheese, but the gentle ambience of the place is immediately striking and the wait staff so informative it is obvious there is a genuine enthusiasm for the food.
The experience was such a delight we will definitely be returning for more. You almost leave feeling sorry for the meat-eaters that might never venture to taste such food.
And it turns out I didn’t need to buy that steak after all.