Turn back the clock a mere 5 years and you’d really have to do your research to find a good plant-based restaurant that would adhere to your dietary choices and satisfy your taste buds. But those days are over! With more people adopting a plant-focused diet every day, the dining industry has responded in kind with a host of new vegan restaurants and cafes. And while the leafy suburbs and countryside are catching up fast, this is particularly prevalent in our fair capital. Local or not, these plant-based restaurants should all be added to your must-visit list.
Asian cuisine should (and could) have been a long-time vegan staple thanks to the abundance of tofu and coconut milk, but with key ingredients often drawing from the animal-based condiment aisle (we’re looking at you fish sauce and pork bone broth), somehow finding vegan Eastern food that really *is* as gloriously satisfying as its carnivorous equivalents has thus far proved elusive.
Enter Tofu Vegan. Despite only opening a few months ago, it’s already bustling seven nights a week and after one visit, we can see why. The Islington eatery is the plant-based sister to street food favourite Xi’an Impression. Don’t let the slightly obvious name put you off – this place has got their menu bang on. The chefs hail from the spicy Sichuan province, Cantonese and northeastern Dong Bei regions of China, and deserve some serious credit for what they’ve created here.
Having lived in Asia for 5+ years, I can vouch for the authenticity of not just the flavours but – more challengingly for a vegan restaurant – the textures too. We tried a mix of dim sum and larger plates as suggested by the helpful staff; a few of which were absolute standouts.
The first is the house-recommended ‘wontons in special sauce’. The steaming parcels filled with veggies and tofu had a succulent meaty texture, smothered in a tangy sauce boasting just the right balance of spice to kick off your meal. For a starter we paired them with the hand-shredded king oyster mushrooms with chilli peanuts and coriander. With such a big menu, our eyes would have slid straight past this item had it not been for the owner Chao Zhang pointing them out as a must-order. It turned out to be the meal’s most surprising highlight! With all the fiery mala (Sichuan) flavour and numbing sensations of an authentic Chengdu dish, we were tempted to order a second plate, and would have, had we not had a table-full of other delights waiting patiently for our chopsticks. These included the delicate soup-filled xiao long bao and tangy twice-cooked ‘fish’. Its crispy texture perfectly complimented a warming bowl of house-made silken tofu topped with spicy ‘mock mince’, which brought back fond memories of our punchy Sichuan favourite mapo tofu.
New for November 2021, Mallow has just landed on the trendy Borough Market scene, making its mark as the first 100% vegan restaurant in the food market’s 265-year history. It sits in a spacious two-storey holding opposite Southwark Cathedral with hand-painted floral walls, an open kitchen and attentive service. Oh and did we mention it hails from the ultra successful team behind plant-based stalwart Mildred’s? They’ve been cooking up a vegan storm since 1988, so the news that they had a new outpost in the offing had foodies clamouring for a seat even before they opened.
The menu at Mallow is as internationally inspired as Mildred’s, with everything from Korean dumplings with gochujang dip to porcini truffle croquettes, beetroot ube borani, and labneh and za’atar flatbread gracing the small plate selection. All were tasty alone, but it was the sauces that accompanied each dish that were the secret heroes of each one, really elevating the flavours with extra zing, tang or spice. We particularly enjoyed the curry-infused cauliflower chaat alongside a light plate of bitter leaves with almond feta, blackberries and vinegar.
Moving onto mains, the plum-plant ‘chicken’ burger tasted distinctly chicken-like, coming smothered in chilli sesame mayo and served with fries. Sadly they had run out of the raved-about banana blossom tacos with pistachio mole and pink grapefruit so we didn’t get to sample those during our visit, but that just means we’ll have to return to get our fill. What a shame that is! Next time we’d also be keen to try the market thali; an Indian platter of masala market veggies, red lentil dhal and more that seemed to be the most popular dish on the tables that surrounded us.
As for dessert, we definitely chose well. The sweet and somehow smoky deliciousness of the carrot cake sticky toffee pudding with cream cheese mousse is a combo that we wish we’d discovered sooner. It is rich though, so sharing this and the super fruity kumquat and lemon meringue pie with your dining partner is highly recommended!
The ethos at Mallow is about minimising waste and using ingredients that are as sustainably, locally sourced as possible. Many are even hand-made on site, like the vegan almond feta, flatbreads, pickles, spice blends and jams. The other thing to note about Mallow is their attention to allergies. A QR code brought over by the waitress reveals dedicated menus designed for diners looking to avoid onion and garlic, or who are gluten conscious. Currently the options on both are a little limited, but their dishes are seasonal so I’ve no doubt there will be more to come.
Ok so this classy spot isn’t technically new, but what *is* new is very exciting for plant-based diners. Sundays at Aqua Kyoto are now ‘Soba Sundays’ and come in the form of an entirely vegan Japanese brunch, including bottomless champagne or cocktails if you’re so inclined!
The chef here is himself vegan (and has been since the age of 16) and it shows. His passion for creating plant-based sushi and other Japanese dishes that are typically meat and fish-centric is clearly evident in the flavours and finesse that has gone into each one. Even more interesting is their decision not to use any ‘mock’ meat or fish. Nothing on this menu is trying to be something it’s not. Instead, every dish is a celebration of plants and how versatile they can be.
The brunch menu is small but, as it turns out, seriously filling. It begins with traditional choices executed to perfection: miso soup and edamame. The latter in particular was irresistibly good thanks to the addition of soy, sesame and cracked sea salt, and coming grilled rather than steamed. It sounds simple, but it sets the bar high for what’s to come; waking up your taste buds and getting you excited for each course that follows.
And excited you should be, as the beautifully presented sushi platter (think beetroot, avocado and sweet potato maki rolls and nigiri) and starter plates of crunchy tempura vegetables and buttery soft aubergine with green chilli miso worked wonderfully together thanks to that distinct umami bite. Our favourite of the mains was a generous bowl of matcha soba noodles with mushrooms, beans and onion teriyaki. It was warm, salty and satisfying, and the slight crunch of the al dente tenderstem broccoli side dish with Karashi Su miso was a nice contrast to the softness of the noodles.
By the time dessert arrived, we were extremely well fed but it’s worth unbuttoning your jeans to dive into the sweet platter served on ice, as it really was the perfect finale – light and refreshing yet decadent too. Highlights included the lemon sorbet served inside a rolled wafer, the coconut and dark chocolate truffles, and the most amazing passionfruit mochi I’d ever tasted.
As for the restaurant itself, it’s a highly elegant space – all dark wood, reds and golds with ambient lighting and geometric decor that sets a sophisticated (yet not at all pretentious) tone. One wall is entirely glass windows and doors that lead out onto a covered heated terrace overlooking Oxford Circus – a rare find in this part of London. And the cherry on top? The service was faultless. We’ll definitely be returning.
Plants by de
Whether you’re a hardcore herbivore or are just dipping a toe into Meatless Mondays, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have heard of one of the vegan world’s most prominent devotees: Deliciously Ella. There are few people who haven’t, thanks to the successful app, podcast and award-winning cookbooks that are already sitting comfortably under her belt. It’s no surprise then that her latest venture, ‘Plants by de’, is as holistic and well thought-out as you’d expect.
It’s a pretty floral-adorned restaurant in Mayfair with a cute and cosy aesthetic and a carefully-curated seasonal menu that’s 100% plant-based and designed for sharing. They pride themselves on using only natural, high-quality ingredients, some of which are made from scratch in their own kitchen – the crushed walnut parmesan and cashew crème fraîche to name just a few. It’s a nice touch that sets it apart from the ever-growing competition.
Theirs is an all-day eatery serving everything from breakfast to cocktails, but if you’re visiting for lunch or dinner, we highly recommend ordering the sourdough bread to devour while you peruse the menu. It comes with their in-house cultured vegan butter, and its salty creaminess is a revelation. If you can save some of the bread (and trust us, this will be challenge) it’s also lovely enjoyed with our favourites from the starter small plate menu: the ‘scallops’ made from king oyster mushrooms, and the candied nut-crusted aubergine served with pistachio cream and yellow curry sauce.
As for the larger plates, we loved the trio of sliders. The mini burger packed with crisp tofu and lightly-spiced sriracha was the most flavoursome, closely followed by the bean and kimchi, and pulled jackfruit with avocado. Our appetites didn’t really *need* side dishes, but we were immensely glad that our eyes had been bigger than our bellies while ordering, as the cashew and miso mac and cheese alone is worth coming here for.
And however virtuous you might feel for sidestepping dessert, our top tip to round out your meal is to give into the indulgence and dive headfirst into the chocolate babka. It comes with homemade choc-chip ice cream and is made with its own brand of Deliciously Ella vegan chocolate. When it’s this good, dessert isn’t optional!
words by Zoe Louise Lagesse
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