Vegan Tofu, 105 Upper Street, London N1 1QN (020 7916 3304). Starters and dim sum £ 5.50-£ 8.50, large plates £ 7.90-£ 14.80, desserts £ 4.80, wines from £ 18.50
About a dozen years ago, an editor invited me to go vegan for two weeks, so I could get back to the boisterous frontline of herbal life. I reduced it to a week, then after five days I announced that I was talking about a work week and angrily grabbed a steak. While the play took the challenge seriously and came with a stacked order of self-mockery, it was also well-seasoned with eye rolling. How funny. Rayner, the carnivore, swears meat, dairy, eggs and honey, with hilarious consequences. Let the fun begin.
This feature would not be turned on now or, if it was, would look roughly disconnected. Twelve years ago it was only about the fingertips. While I don’t claim to have adopted this lifestyle, only an idiot would ignore the imperative to eat less meat. However, it is not always easy. I learned during my five days, for example, that powdered milk is the enemy of veganism. I assumed roasted nuts would be my friend. Then I discovered that a huge proportion of products, those flavored enthusiastically with salt and vinegar, or paprika and grilled onions or black pepper and kumquat (maybe I made one) , use powdered milk to keep the aromas on the nuts. The first lesson in vegan food shopping has become: always read the fine print.
The other lesson took a few days to arrive, like high clouds pouring into a once blue summer sky. I slowly found myself falling into the embrace of the Asian repertoire; in a menu of noodle and rice dishes inspired by the traditions of Japan and Thailand, India and the various provinces of China. All-plant foods can come from any culinary tradition, but it will always be easier when there is no compromise; no tedious attempts to imitate or substitute for non-vegan ingredients.
Obviously, China loves its pig. Japan loves its fish. Beware of awkward generalizations. And yet, for all of this, there is truly so much of this part of the world that just happens to be vegan. Bring the big hits: those chili bean pasta and sesame oils, misos and roasted spice blends, tofu and coconut milk. I could do a lot of things with it, and I did. So, it seems, the kitchen of the Vegan Tofu, a new Chinese restaurant in Islington, London by the people behind the much admired (not vegan) Xi’an Impression in the nearby town of Highbury. Its name gives you the basics. The meat and the fish are out; tofu and various other tofu preparations are available.
There are cheerleader slogans on the walls and waiters’ aprons announcing its virtue, and a chart comparing the nutritional value of eggs and tofu. (Tofu has no cholesterol compared to eggs, which are lousy on it. Go tofu!) But virtue is not a suggestion of service, although some people may claim it. Virtue can literally leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth if the person doing the cooking isn’t up to it.
The best dishes here are the ones that are really just themselves. There is no animal product that can improve on a slippery, crunchy black cloud ear mushroom salad with a weight of salted and sliced fresh red chili peppers, cilantro leaves and a sweet and sour dressing, with a big kick. of sesame oil. It’s the edible equivalent of swimming in cold water. It makes your skin tingle slightly. It makes you feel more alive, which is a serious feat for a bowl of mushrooms.
Dry-fried green beans with more red chili and lots of ground, fried garlic have a crunch and punch. There is a version of this dish with ground pork, used more as a condiment than a main course, but this iteration doesn’t seem like its poorer substitute. Cubes of tofu have been deep-fried and are generously seasoned with salt and the numbing joys of Szechuan pepper, accompanied by a sweet chili sauce. Here, the tofu is really just a blank canvas for the flavors it conveys. But then a lot of these kinds of dishes work that way. I remain skeptical about the idea of fake vegan meats. It always felt sorry and unnecessary. Plant-based foods should definitely be good because of the fact, rather than despite it. Still, once you’ve pulled a shootout of salt, peppercorns, and chili peppers on fried chicken, it might as well be tofu.
This is exactly what happens with a plate of Chongqing “chicken” with chili peppers. There are a lot of quotes on the menu like this, used for “meats” that are not what they claim to be. I have eaten the chicken version of the chilli dish several times. I love the childish thrill of the forced treasure hunt; to pick up the rubble of red chilli and pepper in search of breaded and fried nuggets. The fact that it’s tofu here, makes very little difference to the absorbing pleasure of it.
The twice-cooked “fish” cleverly adds a strip of seaweed, full of saline and surf, to the edge of flattened pieces of tofu before it’s fried. It provides a seaside kick. Even with my doubts about the nomenclature – we know it’s not fish – this part works. The problem here is with the sauce. I made the double-cooked pork version of this dish at home and I know a bit about the balance of Szechuan chili paste with the sweet flour sauce and black beans. There isn’t enough of it, perhaps because there is a fear that it will make the “fillets” soggy, but it’s still an engaging plate.
I’m encouraged by various waiters to have their spicy wonton, which they all tell me is their specialty, and the sauce with it is a belt. Our server pours a little on the ravioli with the skin tight, garnished with a fine dice of unidentified but crunchy vegetables. It is a deeply fragrant and inviting bowl. I could do a lot of damage to a lot of them. I end up drinking the sauce.
I’ve never hung out at Chinese restaurants for desserts and the two here – the red bean paste stuffed sesame rolls and the caramel sticky rice balls – don’t hold me back. Instead, we go next to a branch of the Ice Cream Chain Amorino. It makes a good range of sorbets which are also vegan. However, I do not end the evening feeling virtuous. I don’t shine with complacency. I just feel fed.
While most restaurants have reopened since the first lockdown, some have taken their time. Among them is London theater mainstay Joe Allen, who will finally do so next month, and in a certain style. What used to be a separate dining room at the front has become Joe’s Bar. It will be overseen by Russell Norman, who began his hospitality career with the legendary Joe’s in the 1990s. The drink menu will be long on Martinis and Negronis and there will be a bar snack menu including the truffled egg toast from Norman Spuntino’s former restaurant. Meanwhile, the Dining Room has a new Executive Chef in the form of Gary Lee, who for many years ran the kitchen of the original Ivy on West Street in Covent Garden. Its new menu retains many Joe’s classics including Caesar salad and baby back ribs, but adds the crispy duck and watermelon salad from the Ivy. TO joeallen.fr.
And another door unlock delayed by the pandemic: Hawksmoor New York, which was due to launch in early 2020, has finally opened. The restaurant, on East 22 of Manhattansd Street, features executive chef Matt Bernero, formerly of the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, and a menu of locally sourced ingredients including Island Creek oysters, Maine lobster, and Vermont smoked bacon. Visit hawksmoornyc.com.
Chewing The Fat by Jay Rayner: Tasting Notes of a Gourmet Life, is now available. Buy it for £ 4.99 at guardbookshop.com