Sadly Saf has now closed, though there is still a branch in Kensington.
There are few pure vegetarian restaurants in London (other than Indian places), let alone vegan ones. If you imagine some sort of hippie-run, casual place with people in cardigans eating lentils (actually, that is pretty much what I assumed), then you will be surprised by Saf, which means “pure” in Turkish. The décor is smart and modern, with an open kitchen. Even mid-week the place was packed out, populated mainly by trendy young things who probably work in the media. Given that the food is mostly raw, the menu manages to be quite inventive, and avoids being preachy apart from marking some dishes as including “detoxifying ingredients” – I was expecting a waitress to come over and wave some crystals over me if I ordered one of those. I tried to stick to the toxifying ingredients where possible. Starters are about £6, mains about £11, desserts average around £6.
The wine list is carefully assembled and is heavily New-World oriented; it must be tough to find many New Age, biodynamic French wine makers, though there are a few. Prices start at £4 a glass and include choices such as Andre Stentz Pinot Blanc 2006 at £26 for a wine that costs about £11 in the shops, while on the red side of the list there was Rioja Rayos Uva Ilivier Rivere 2005 at £33 for a wine that will set you back around £13 in a shop, and Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2006 at £52 for a wine that costs about £18 retail.
There is no bread, which puzzles me a little as unless you make bread with whey or butter, which is certainly not compulsory, it surely qualifies as vegan. I began with “beetroot ravioli” which in fact consisted of a few slices of raw beetroot, on which was cashew nut ricotta, julienned carrots, balsamic figs and pumpkin seed oil. This worked a lot better than it may sound, the presentation attractive and the use of the oil giving some much-needed moisture to the dish (13/20). Vegetable maki rolls were tasty, if a little dry, having a filling of avocado, shiso and parsnip rice (12/20).
For the main course I tried Pad Thai, which unlike the traditional Thai noodles dish eschewed noodles in place of courgette strands, enoki mushrooms, mung shoots and almond sauce enlivened with a little chilli. This was another dish that worked better than it had any right too, the texture attractive, the tastes complimentary, the spicing at about the right level (13/20). Root vegetable tart had a crust of buckwheat and herbs, with pickled onions, basil tomatoes, cashew creamed spinach and rocket – carefully seasoned, with a nice base (12/20).
A “cheese” dish was in fact made from a pulped cashew paste, to which was added sage pesto, pink peppercorns, white balsamic vinegar and heirloom tomatoes, with a nicely dressed salad (13/20). This had a vaguely cheesy consistency, but as with some other dishes I don’t know why they bother trying to use familiar terminology to describe dishes that actually bear little relation to their name, yet are actually attractive in their own right. Perhaps “cashew pulp” would not be great from a marketing viewpoint, but the dish tastes nothing like cheese, so why call it that?
Service was efficient and dishes arrived quickly, which of course is easier given there is essentially no conventional cooking going on. Overall, the dishes here are designed with considerable thought, are attractively presented, are well seasoned and have good flavour. To operate with such a self-imposed limited set of ingredients and produce enjoyable food takes considerable skill, and the food here raises the bar for vegan/vegetarian restaurants.