The fact that I've been putting off going to SAF for a while may not come as much of a surprise. I may take far more of a personal interest in vegetarian food that I used to but I still struggle to muster any enthusiasm for a fully veggie restaurant. To be fair to Antonia (the reason for the personal interest) I've not exactly been under pressure to go to too many. At the risk of peddling a sweeping generalisation, "normal" restaurants who make a bit of an effort with one or two veggie options often appear to be a better bet that specialist vegetarian places who mainly specialise in bland.
Anyway, as if being a vegetarian restaurant were not deterrent enough, SAF is actually a vegan place that specialises in raw food. They do a decent range of interesting looking cocktails to suit the New York decor but, with that kind of food policy, they'd have to have been a lot more than just interesting to get me through the door. Where raw roots failed, however, peer pressure prevailed, and last night the shoe was on the other foot as Antonia tried not to gloat at my struggle to find something – anything – that I could bring myself to order.
Actually that's a little unfair: I think I'd have been more open to SAF (and less freaked out my first look at the menu) if I'd really thought about the implications of their vegan/raw policy. I've been more or less completely off carbs for a while now (in an attempt to address one of the more predictable consequences of my restaurant habit) so a menu that seemed to embrace pasta and rice at every turn seemed like a new and unusual torture. But, not for the first time last night, things were not quite as they seemed.
This, for instance, is SAF's signature lasagne:
Now obviously if I'd thought about it I'd have realised this wasn't going to be any sort of standard pasta dish, what with the lack of eggs and everything, but this was so far from anything even vaguely resembling lasagne that you have to wonder how it earned the monicker at all. Layers...? I guess. But even they weren't that obvious. Let's face it: despite apparently having strata of walnut bolagnaise, sage pesto and some other goodies, it's basically a compacted salad. Nothing wrong with that – indeed, like most of the food we had, it was rather good – but a lasagne...? Hmmm...
We'd started with a selection of five starters between the four of us, including some edamame with wasabi powder, a particularly good choice for me as I was instantly reassured that not everything was going to be cold and raw. Other nibbles included some toasted almonds, olives and curried cashews: all good. A cold cucumber consommé was poured over and around some diced red peppers and cucumber with a quenelle of olive oil sorbet: this divided opinion but I thought it a very well conceived and very grown-up dish. "Caviar" was chives, rendered by some El Bulli style alchemy into slightly bland pearls that were rescued by sweet potato latkes with apple and sour cream (the kind of cream was not specified but one must assume it was one of SAF's nut creations). Spring dumplings came dim sum style with some intense dipping sauce and were good and – praise be – hot.
Then followed the cheese course: not cheese in the traditional sense, of course, but nut cheese (that's enough giggling at the back). A sharing plate of three different cheeses, made, if I recall, from macadamia, almond and (probably) cashew. These were fine but the consensus was that there wasn't much to justify calling them cheeses. A strict vegan might welcome the chance to sample something that was vaguely cheesy but the rest of us can see this for what it is: tasty enough tangy, nutty creations that are basically dips that were stiff enough to eat with a knife and fork. Presumably the restaurant agrees: if they really thought these really passed as cheeses I imagine they'd be pushing the cheese course as something to have at the end the meal rather than bang in the middle.
Among the main courses, as well as the "lasagne", there was a special of taccos with more cheesy bits and pieces and a wild mushroom croquette which came with some sort of truffle sauce. I'm afraid I was too busy tucking into my squashed salad to pay too much attention but there were four spotlessly clean plates by the end.
We'd had a few post-work sharpeners (imagine) so we didn't sample the cocktails. We did, however, enjoy a bottle or three of a £30 Aligoté, a mid-range choice from a decent enough selection. Service was very good, particularly from our very jolly waitress, although some of her colleagues looked like they could do with a good solid meal. Which, to come full circle, was exactly how I thought I was going to feel at the end of the meal: there were many jokes as we'd arrived about having a kebab on the way home. But in the end it was good. Very good in fact. This is accomplished, imaginative cooking, some of which even comes out of hot pots and pans, and if the determination to name some of the dishes after non-veggie equivalents is an unnecessary affectation the results have just about persuaded me to let them off.
SAF apparently stands for simple authentic food. Disingenuous, to say the least: that's a bit like squashing a salad and calling it a lasagne.
SAF 152-154 Curtain Road EX2A 3AT 020 7613 0007