27 Jan 2009

Detoxicating Prose

WELCOME TO ‘saf’ (seasonal authentic food). This bright, ‘botanical’ restaurant is brought to you by ‘LifeCo’, an organisation which sounds like it might have cryogenically filed Walt Disney somewhere. In reality, its intentions are all about promoting ‘wellness’. Diet is of course part of that. An obvious statement, although you would be surprised how frequently my psychologist mother sees “irreparably hyperactive” children whose effervescence is attributable to no more than an o.d. of Sunny D.
‘Trendy’ Shoreditch’s version made its debut last April – there are other wheat grass green embassies in Munich and Turkey. I imagined it to be corny, even fluffy although it is of course neither, being gluten free and staunchly furless. It also disallows dairy and serves mostly raw food. The marketing at most only gently touches on this, which is cunning. On launch day I was elsewhere - bibbed in Madrid, grinding my way through several platters of haemorrhaging chops. They were so moistly cooked that my fellow carnivores actually applauded the chef.
Being blinkered by blood, I harboured three doubts about a ‘free from’ restaurant:
1. Lack of takers / masticators. There are very few vegans in the wild (around a quarter of a percent of the population). Many must have been put-off linen for life by poor plated appeasements in conventional establishments. Whilst fanatics of the flesh might stop by out of curiosity or confusion, a creeping nostalgia for protein could prevent repeat custom.
2. Sheer ambition and technological requirements. Using complex techniques such as ‘spheriphication’ born in elBulli-like workshops, a reasonably priced restaurant of calibre would be running at a loss for a long time.
3. Heather Mills is a regular.
Were my suspicions founded? Was the reality what a friend described as ‘all mung* beans and self loathing’? Veganism is not hedonism’s obvious bedfellow. Whilst December was calm, every table was taken on the January weekday when I went. A depressingly attractive set wearing tweed with irony were seeing through healthy resolutions. They were lured like yogis to a pot of rooibos for saf’s specially marked detox dishes. Spending pounds to lose them, although no one could be described as a challenge to the floorboards.
Over a carafe of Château Thames carefully filtered, adjusted to a sharp pH and garnished with cucumber, my companion, Jonathan from ‘Around Britain with a Paunch’ excitedly told me about the deer hanging in his parents garage. Despite our choice of venue, it seemed this would be a meating of minds.
Out of nine courses, the one most laden with promise was also the first: ‘Caviar’ with Sour ‘Cream’. Nothing is what it seems at saf, however, and what transpired was poignant, chirpy, kelpy chive pearls falling over scoops of cashew nut paste on sweet potato blinis. These smelt like white mushroom flesh. Two apple ‘chimneys’ rose. Dried beetroot powder was dusted across like crushed cochineal. This was matched with a Champagne saucer of charismatic organic cava from Albet I Noya. Incidentally, all drinks, from ‘The Safia’ chamomile / green gin in the stylishly bare bar to ‘groovy’ Grüner Veltliner from the wood fringed list are voted in for their natural beauty. The restaurant even runs a wine club.
A dedicated ‘cheese’ course of Pesto Au Poivre was the most filling dish – a tall stack of turkey scented cashew with bands of gently drying, feathery sage and a pink peppercorn crust. This was finished with a shallow trickle of white balsamic, tarragon and bacon-like heirloom tomatoes dried into crisp crackers. We wondered quite why this was so successful, until we paused to examine our vocabulary. We were desperately drawing meaty comparisons.
The Tom Kha Soup was the meal’s only concession to properly heated food. According to LifeCo, warming enzymes over 48 degrees Celsius depletes them. The coconut-lemon grass broth with tofu (welcome), oyster mushrooms and coriander was as near to being a complete dish as possible, but schizophrenically spicily out of character with the rest of the meal. In all fairness, the ‘Spicy – can be modified’ description should have cautioned us.
Swiss Chard Rolls with mung beans*, water chestnut, Thai vinaigrette, a shuffle of pickled cucumber and slimy seaweed was not the best looking dish, but probably the healthiest thing I have ever put in my mouth. It caused such a crunch in my cranium that I momentarily knew what it was like to be rabbit grinding its incisors. I may have appreciated it more had I had three more stomachs.
The mandarin scented chocolate ganache decorated with dried rosebuds was a valiant effort to supply something to salivate over whilst avoiding the untouchables. Pumpkin pie was decorated with a surprisingly delectable, nutty yet succulent winter pansy. Jonathan and I awkwardly joked that we might look like a couple of pansies. This is complimentary in a way – they are surprisingly hardy plants.
Soy milk holds all the appeal of a holiday in Hull - grassy Argentinean Yerba matte therefore replaced a macchiato. Thankfully it was heated above 48 degrees.
I would like to say that our six hours at saf passed like an eco fairy tale: ‘meat meets veg and lives happily ever after’. The food was carefully, painstakingly executed and daintily presented. It was enthusiastically explained by staff with energy and served with warmth. Arranged around an open plan kitchen cool in temperature and temperament, the room was a pleasure to sit within. Chef Chad Sarno was gracious with a greaseless hand. The cocktail list was spellbinding and the wines accessibly, encouragingly priced. The unisex loos with Ecover handwash were immaculate No wonder pilgrims are making the journey from Britain and beyond.
Inevitably however saf remains a slightly tough nut to crack. It packs too many culinary genres on one menu, from Caesar salad to samosas, Thai soup to Chinese pancakes and fake pasta to British roots and shoots. It also represents ingrediental absenteeism: imagine the Mona Lisa in monochrome. Whilst it keeps its principles discreet, I left feeling smugly privileged that my life is enriched by death. That night I dreamt of molten butter spread deeply onto toast triangles, almost curdling cream, sticky, runny, bursting egg yokes, the sensation of tearing blazing red flesh and sucking warm marrowbone goo, twirling swines on spits, fried swordfish steaks, tear salty oysters and garlic sodden crayfish tails. The rich aromas from an oil fired Aga stuffed with plucked, basted fowl…
‘Saf’ - 152-154 Curtain Rd., Shoreditch, London. EC2A. T. 020 7613 0007
Nearest Tube: Old St.
Saf on Urbanspoon

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