Tofu Vegan, London: ‘Bring on the big hitters' – restaurant review

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Tofu Vegan, 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

A dozen years ago, an editor invited me to go vegan for two weeks, so I could report back from the raucous frontline of plant-based living. I haggled her down to one week and then, after five days, announced I meant a working week, and angrily seared a steak. While the piece took the challenge seriously, and came with a stacked side order of self-mockery, it was also well seasoned with eye-rolling. How funny. Rayner, the carnivore, swearing off meat, dairy, eggs and honey, with hilarious consequences. Let the fun commence.

That feature wouldn’t be commissioned now or, if it were, would look grossly out of touch. Even 12 years ago it only just about held on by its fingertips. While I don’t claim to have embraced the lifestyle, only an idiot would ignore the imperative to eat less meat. That said, it’s not always simple. I learned during my five days, for example, that milk powder is the enemy of veganism. I assumed roasted nuts would be my friend. Then I discovered that a huge proportion of products, those enthusiastically flavoured with salt and vinegar, or paprika and roasted onions or black pepper and kumquat (I may have made one of those up), use milk powder to keep the flavourings on the nuts. The first lesson of vegan food shopping became: always read the small print.

© Provided by The Guardian ‘A deeply flavoured and inviting bowlful’: spicy wontons. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The other lesson took a couple of days to arrive, like high clouds spilling into a once blue summer sky. I gently found myself falling into the embrace of the Asian repertoire; into a noodle and rice-based menu of dishes drawing on the traditions of Japan and Thailand, India and the various provinces of China. Entirely plant-based food can come from any culinary tradition, but it’s always going to be easiest when there is no compromise; no cumbersome attempt to mimic or replace non-vegan ingredients.

Obviously, China loves its pig. Japan just adores its fish. Beware clumsy generalisations. And yet for all that, there really is so much from that part of the world that just happens to be vegan. Bring on the big hitters: those chilli bean pastes and the sesame oils, the misos and the roasted spice mixes, the tofu and the coconut milk. I could do an awful lot with that, and did. So, it seems, can the kitchen at Tofu Vegan, a new Chinese restaurant in London’s Islington from the people behind the much-admired (and non-vegan) Xi’an Impression in nearby Highbury. Its name gives you the basics. Meat and fish are out; tofu and various other bean curd preparations are in.

© Provided by The Guardian ‘There is no animal product that can improve it’: black cloud ear mushroom. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

There are cheerleading slogans on both the walls and the waiters’ aprons announcing its virtue, and a chalkboard comparing the nutritional value of eggs and tofu. (The tofu has zero cholesterol compared to the eggs, which are lousy with it. Go tofu!) But virtue is not a serving suggestion, however much some people may pretend it could be. Virtue can literally leave a nasty taste in the mouth, if the person doing the cooking isn’t up to the job.

The very best dishes here are those that really are just themselves. There is no animal product that can improve a slippery and crunchy salad of black cloud ear mushroom with a ballast of salted and sliced fresh red chillies, fronds of coriander and a salty and sour dressing, with a big nutty hit from sesame oil. It is the edible equivalent of cold-water swimming. It makes your skin tingle slightly. It makes you feel more alive, which is a serious achievement for a bowl of mushrooms.

© Provided by The Guardian ‘A seashore kick’: twice-cooked ‘fish’. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Dry-fried green beans with more red chilli and lots of ground and fried garlic has crunch and kick. There’s a version of this dish with minced pork, used more as condiment than main event, but this iteration does not feel like its poorer substitute. Cubes of tofu have been deep-fried and come liberally seasoned with salt and the lip-numbing joys of Sichuan pepper, alongside a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Here, tofu really is just a blank canvas for the flavours it carries. But then a lot of these sorts of dishes work that way. I remain sceptical about the idea of vegan faux meats. It has always felt apologetic and unnecessary. Surely plant-based food should be good because of the fact, rather than in spite of it. Still, once you’ve fired a fusillade of salt, peppercorns and chillies at deep-fried chicken it might as well be tofu.

© Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer ‘Entirely plant-based food can come from any culinary tradition, but it’s always going to be easiest when there is no compromise’: Tofu Vegan, London.

Which is exactly what happens with a plate of Chongqing “chicken” with red chillies. There are lots of inverted commas on the menu like this, used for “meats” that aren’t what they say they are. I have eaten the chicken version of the chilli dish many times. I love the childlike thrill of the enforced treasure hunt; of picking through the red chilli and peppercorn rubble in search of the battered and deep-fried nuggets. The fact that it’s bean curd here, makes very little difference to the absorbing pleasure of it.

© Provided by The Guardian ‘Tofu is a blank canvas for the flavours it carries’: deep-fried tofu and pepper. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Twice-cooked “fish” cleverly adds a strip of seaweed, full of saline and surf, to the edge of flattened pieces of more bean curd before it is deep fried. It provides a seashore kick. Even with my doubts over nomenclature – we know it ain’t fish – that part does work. The issue here is with the sauce. I have made the double-cooked pork version of this dish at home and know a little about the balance of the Sichuan chilli paste with the sweet flour sauce and the black beans. There’s not enough of that, perhaps because there’s a fear it would make the “fillets” soggy, but it’s still an engaging plateful.

I am encouraged by various waiters to have their spicy wonton, which they all tell me is their speciality, and the sauce with that is a belter. Our waiter spoons a little of it over the taut-skinned dumplings, filled with a fine dice of unidentified but crunchy vegetables. It’s a deeply flavoured and inviting bowlful. I could do serious damage to a lot of those. I end up drinking the sauce.

I have never hung around in Chinese restaurants for desserts and the two here – sesame rolls stuffed with red bean paste and the toffee-flavoured glutinous rice balls – do not detain me. Instead, we go next door to a branch of the ices chain Amorino. It does a good line in sorbets that also happen to be vegan. I don’t, however, end the evening feeling virtuous. I don’t glow with self-righteousness. I simply feel fed.

News bites

While most restaurants have reopened since the first lockdown, some have taken their time about it. Among them is the London theatreland stalwart Joe Allen, which is finally doing so next month, and in some style. What was a separate front dining room is to become Joe’s Bar. It will be overseen by Russell Norman, who started his career in the hospitality business with the legendary Joe’s in the 1990s. The drinks list will be big on Martinis and Negronis and there will be a bar snack menu, including the truffled egg toast from Norman’s former restaurant Spuntino. Meanwhile, the dining room has a new executive chef in the shape of Gary Lee, who for many years led the kitchen at the original Ivy on West Street in Covent Garden. His new menu retains many of the Joe’s classics including the Caesar salad and the ribs, but adds the crispy duck and watermelon salad from the Ivy. At joeallen.co.uk.

And one other door unlocking delayed by the pandemic: Hawksmoor New York, which had been due to launch in early 2020, has finally opened. The restaurant, on Manhattan’s East 22nd Street, boasts an executive Chef, Matt Bernero, formerly of the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, and a menu of ingredients sourced from nearby, including Island Creek oysters, Maine lobster and Vermont smoked bacon. Visit hawksmoornyc.com.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

Jay Rayner’s Chewing The Fat: Tasting Notes from a Greedy Life, is out now. Buy it for £4.99 at guardianbookshop.com

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