London’s restaurant scene is well pisted. The snow is compact and the piste bashers do a great job of making sure the slopes are manicured and suitable for all abilities. I love carving down a racy red or blasting down a deadly black run. But it is so exhilarating to push the boundaries off the beaten track, where a small mistake can trigger an avalanche or a ride on a bumpy blood wagon.
My latest departure from the road well travelled was to, Goody Two-Shoes, Saf in Hoxton with Douglas. Saf apparently means “pure” in various Near Eastern languages which translates as a concept to vegan food, rarely cooked above 48’c and lacking in gluten. The menu is wheat, meat and dairy free.
Chad Sarno, who is the mastermind behind the cooking side of the venture, is variously known as the “The king of uncooked and vegan cuisine” (GQ Magazine (U.K Edition), June 2005) and in Woody Harrelson’s words, “Chad Sarno is without question the greatest raw food chef alive. He is the Michael Jordan of live foods... the best at what he does. And I've been fortunate enough to experience his delicious creations”.
His credentials as a pioneer of uber healthy food are beyond question and his food is celebrated in the form of Saf in Istanbul and Munich. He is also the brains behind a sweep of restaurants across America where he has crafted healthy menus for spas, retreats, sanctuaries and restaurants and is the doyenne of health crazed Hollywood stars.
Saf is part of LifeCo, whose website says things like:
“Every day we are exposed to a toxic environment through the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat. Our body does not run efficiently which puts stress on our entire system and can manifest itself as illness and disease.
Our environment is becoming increasingly unnatural. The air's oxygen level has halved in the last 200 years and the air indoors is 2-10 times more polluted than outdoors. Animal products are full of antibiotics and growth hormones which we in turn consume, while 80% of food in grocery stores did not exist 50 years ago. Our stress levels are 10,000 times greater than 100 years ago.”
Quibbles about these statistics to one side, it seems that The Life Co is a very successful health company, which has branched out into restaurants that bring their concept to life in a culinary way. It’s almost as if the restaurants are being used as a marketing tool for the parent company… a loss leader if you like.
I arrived, late, at Saf and saw Douglas sitting at a table in the window like the man on the left of Edward Hopper’s, Nighthawks.
I had come without a camera, notepad, a sense of punctuality or any preconceptions. I was keen to evaluate Saf’s promise and judge it fairly. I love meat. I adore dairy. And I like at least part of my food to be hot. My favourite taste is that incredible hit of charred flesh that you get on the outside of a Hawksmoor steak; that amazing mouthfeel of animal fat that coats the inside of your mouth. I’m like most Englishmen, I eat my greens like a good boy and have the occasional side salad. But I’m firmly on the carnivore side of omnivore.
Our exploration of Saf’s menu couldn’t have been more in depth. We meandered through the chef’s selection of 11 courses which took us around 5 hours.The service was peerless and friendly. The staff here have to be on their toes to answer a barrage of questions that wouldn't crop up in other restaurants. Such as "what effect will the mung beans have on my metabolism?" Rather than waffle about all the courses I’ll just give you the Match of the Day version:
We started with “caviar”. As ever, you need to use your imagination and suspend your belief. It arrived on a large expanse of circular white china looking like an exhibit at MoMA. The component parts were chive pearls, sweet potato cakes, apples and sour cream. It was a triumph, managing to be pretty, tasty, healthy and something I’d order again. We were convinced there was a slither of truffle in there somewhere.
Things got more interesting when we were served “pesto au poivre” which melded cashew cheese, sage pesto, pink pepper, corn crust, heirloom tomato & white balsamic vinegar. The light vinegar sliced through the slice of cashew cheese like a cheese wire whilst the pink pepper and sage pesto added savoury depth. This was my first experience of cheese made from nut milk rather than animal juice. It wasn’t much like normal cheese and was oddly gummy. But at this stage we were ravenous so it was good ballast!
Beetroot Ravioli was stunning. Looking like a maroon scallop shell, our Beetroot Ravioli looked breathtaking but couldn’t deliver in flavour. I’m not sure what Saf’s stance on seasoning is, but this desperately lacked a good grind of salt and pepper to bring out the earthy sweetness of the beetroot.
Then came my nadir. Swiss Chard Rolls were almost inedible. I find it hard to outdo Douglas on this one… “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.” I’ll simply add that it was painful to finish and by this point I was day dreaming about steak and ale pie!
Our only hot course was a bowl of electrically spiced Tom Kha Soup. I was, embarrassingly, rendered speech and breathless for several minutes by the psychopathically aggressive chili oil that slicked the surface in attractive blotches. Tofu, shitake mushrooms and lemon grass bobbed around like slippery flotsam. It was an essay in textures.
Somosas were disappointing. Cloying and claggy, they simply got in the way of the delicious wine. They looked and tasted brown which was unusual for an otherwise very colorful meal. What this course highlighted was the problem Saf has with textures. Whenever the kitchen tries to do something pseudo-naughty it fails. Without recourse to animal fats or source of heat an attempt to reproduce the comforting mouthfeel you get from hot fat or dairy falls flat and tastes heavy and sticky.
Following on from this our chocolate torte almost killed us. We went from feeling light and bouncy after 9 courses to blubbery and clogged. It was denser than George Bush and made my stomach feel as though it had just had a barium meal.
The wines, selected by Joe McCanta, were a fantastic complement to the meal. But if you want to know more about them I suggest you pop over to read about them on Douglas's blog.
Saf’s food is a fascinating diversion from the straight and narrow of London’s restaurant scene, giving us both an experience we will not forget. I am delighted that I have embraced a culinary area that is way out of my comfort zone. Having given the pinnacle of Vegan food a try, I can now put it to oneside and enjoy meat again!
I have got a few problems with Saf, that don’t directly involve the obvious lack of meat, heat or dairy.
First, the textures are either far too crunchy or cloying. Secondly, the menu is erratic – it doesn’t follow a traditional theme. You zig-zag from Italian to the Far East in a schizophrenic clatter. And thirdly, we only began to feel anything approaching full after we had scoffed down 9 courses. The final 2 finished us off, but most people will only have 3 or 4 courses. But then again people aren’t coming to Saf to “fill up”, they visit Saf to make their soul feel pure and cleansed.
But this restaurant isn’t for me. And that’s fine. It's for the people of the Croydon Vegetarian’s and Vegan’s Guide to London:
“This is not just food, this is saf cuisine, this is not just service this is saf attention, this is not just a restaurant in London it is a magic doorway into the future of eating. Saf means 'pure' in Turkish and many other middle eastern languages for me it was pure magic, pure fantasy, pure indulgence pure epicurian ecstasy a pure personification of all my wildest dreams and more.”
It's a triumph from a creative point of view, even if it isn't my cup of yerba mate. There are an array of sayings about how constraints precipitate creativity... but this one from Henri Matisse sums it up for me.
"In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed."
Now time to return to the piste for a rare charred steak.
All photos are from the Saf website apart from the Nighthawks.