For the past while, I’ve been reading (and drooling) about pop-up restaurants without being able to partake in this latest foodie fashion. I cannot think of a less pleasant phone call to make than ringing a four-day passion project to ask whether they can do me a gluten-, dairy-, bla bla bla, everything-free version of whatever it is they have spent months agonizing over. Not really my idea of a good time – not for them, not for me.
Vegan and gluten-free – in London (England) -- huh? Huh? WHAAAAAT?
The last time I got this excited about food in London, it was served on a bus and the view was of hookers. (long story)
DW and I had a date-night planned for Friday, and seeing as cinema times are not really geared towards co-sleeping attachment-parenting Ima and Pappa of a toddler, we decided to check the place out.
Let me start with a warning: there are no pictures of the food. I wanted to enjoy, relax and eat without stressing out about whether I had a good enough shot.
We called to ensure that I could, in fact, eat their food and got a resounding yes. Even when I called again, early Friday morning – the day of said dinner – to make sure there was no dreaded agave, the friendly Natalie who was to be our waitress, patiently and kindly liased with the chef to assure me. Raw avocado chocolate mousse it was then!
DW and I sauntered through the streets of North London, holding hands, feeling strangely free and yet as if we’d – as DW said – “left a part of our hearts back home.” It’s difficult to leave Vida Lev. And wonderful to be alone with my husband.
Like good parents on a ticking clock, we arrived early and chatted to the two women in charge – one of whom was the lovely Natalie from earlier. The other was her equally gorgeous sister. They made us feel welcome and comfortable, a detail that always has huge ramifications on my dinner – the attitude of restaurant staff is more often than not, reflected in the food, don’t you think? Their charm lasted throughout the meal. Really, truly, I could have sat there for hours. I loved the décor, the lighting, the whole ambiance was wonderful.
And now to the food. This is trickier. Let me start by saying that I did very much enjoy it. The ingredients were fresh, and clearly a lot of love and thought had gone into each dish.
Simply put, I’d give the Chef a 10 for effort. I could tell he worked his ass off to provide a range of options showcasing his different talents as well as catering to us “healthy” “vegan” types. Each course offered both raw and cooked options -- earthy roots, refreshing salads, great grains and healthy fats.
For all three – the starters, mains and desserts -- DW and I shared a cooked dish and a raw one. The cooked dishes were without a doubt superior to the raw though I feel a little guilty saying this as I’m so grateful that there was raw food to begin with!
Our starters were a salad with mandolin-thin sliced sweet potato and olive and tomato tapenade – richly flavoured, a great combo of sweet and savoury. I happen to be very partial to mixing things like olives with sweet roots and was very happy with the results in this particular salad. It was satisfying without being heavy. The raw nori rolls, on the other hand, were surprisingly unconvincing. They tasted like many a raw mock tuna salad I have had in the past – something I’m not all that keen on anyway. But based on the description on the menu, I had expected a lovely, mellow vegetable roll, not the intense taste I was confronted with. It didn’t feel as well thought out, as nuanced as the cooked salad (which did contain raw spinach leaves).
For mains, we had the quinoa cakes and the raw stir-fry (which obviously wasn’t fried) with pine nut “rice.”
I’m going to interrupt myself here to mention a pet peeve that extends to most of these places: please don’t call something by a more widely known name if what you’re delivering is completely different. Don’t say “pizza” when it has nothing to do with the famous dish, or “meatballs” when there isn’t any meat for miles, or “stir-fry” when it isn’t fried. OK, I feel better now. Thank you.
When DW had his first bite of the quinoa cake with cabbage sauce, he pronounced it “bland.” But lo and behold, by the second, third, fourth, twentieth bite, we were both wanting more. I want it for my vegan Thanksgiving; or for Sunday roast. Every week. It was a warming, comfort-food type dish – not immediately impressive -- but it crept up and discretely turned wonderful. In fact, we requested a takeaway sample for Vida Lev, which the chef kindly sent us up on the house. How sweet is that?
Unfortunately, however, though the raw “stir fry” and “rice” wasn’t bad, it also wasn’t fantastic. Here’s the thing about raw food: getting gourmet raw food right is harder than it seems. Almost anyone can make a decent salad, but what separates a bunch of lettuce leaves from actual uncooked greatness is the same thing that separates a chef from a passionate cook. Once again, however, I would have to give Chef Cooper a 10 for effort.
For dessert, DW had the chocolate hazelnut cake, which I tried a tiny bit of (it contained soy so I stayed away for the most part). I found it slightly dry – personally, I’m big on icing – but DW would happily have enjoyed a second piece had his stomach, budget and ego allowed him to. My raw chocolate mousse was good. The chef made me a special agave-free version for which I was grateful.
What a treat to be able to spoon food off DW’s plate, to allow him to taste mine without having to request additional cutlery -- to eat and enjoy without worrying and wondering.
I know this guy is going to make waves in London. At least I hope he will. Because I could taste his passion in every bite. He still has a ways to go, but I applaud him. Bring on the healthy, gluten-free, vegan pop-ups!
We enjoyed our experience at Tolerance so much that DW and I decided to stop by Oliver’s Café, where the pop-up took place to check out their regular service. Again, lovely people, lovely ambiance.
“Where has this place been all my [London] life?” I wondered out loud.
We had to laugh – ain’t it always the way? Like when you’re about to go to the hairdresser and your hair looks perfect for the first time in forever. But hey ho, we leave for New York in a week!
That being said, I was chatting to the owner and the guy behind the bar about vegan food and raw food and how different people react to it. I’m of the opinion that anyone who cooks special diet meals should be focusing on making their food exciting and delicious for everyone, not just people who choose to or are forced to eat a specific way. Whether it’s gluten-free, vegan, raw, or all of the above, it needs to knock your socks off, even if you eat ham and cheese baguette every other meal of your life.
For example, some of the diners at Tolerance were turned off by the fact that the chocolate mousse was made with avocado. My theory is that had they not known the strange and unexpected ingredient to begin with, they probably would have enjoyed it more. Case-in-point: my raw chocolate banana torte. The name doesn’t give anything away, nor do I tell people about the tahini or the avocado (unless, of course, there’s an allergy or intolerance issue) until they’re licking their fingers and plates clean – and, believe me, they usually do. This recipe appeared in the second Leon cookbook, Naturally Fast Food.
Raw Chocolate Banana Torte
A great one to make a day or two in advance as the extra time lets the flavours meld together. Trust me, if you can get past the idea of avocado in dessert, you’ll love it.
For the Base layer
¾ cups almonds
6 dates, pitted
¼ cup melted coconut oil
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
For the chocolate layer
2 T tahini
6 T cacao
½ t vanilla powder
2 t honey
4 T water
For the banana layers
4 ripe bananas
It is important to start by making the base layer so that it has time to set in the freezer:
For the base layer:
Combine the almonds, dates, sunflower seeds and salt in the food processor. Melt the coconut oil in a Bain de Marie to avoid overheating. Once the coconut oil has liquified, pour into the food processor while it’s working. The mixture should end up as more or less one uniform ball.
Divide into two parts, one larger (about 3/4), one smaller (about ¼) and put the smaller one aside. Press the larger part into an 8 inch round cake pan with the base of your palm until it is about half a centimetre thick. Put in the freezer to set while you prepare the other layers.
For the first banana layer:
Mash up two bananas.
For the second banana layer:
Chop the remaining two bananas into even slices.
For the chocolate layer:
(This can be done by hand or in the food processor – the key here is to make sure that it is extremely well-mixed: you don’t want little chunks of avocado ruining the party.)
Mash the avocado. Mix the tahini in very well. Add the cacao and vanilla powder followed by the honey and make sure everything is well blended – it should look like and have the consistency of chocolate pudding. At the very end, dilute ever so slightly with water.
To create the torte:
Pull the bottom layer out of the freezer.
Cover with the mashed bananas.
At this point, roll out the second, smaller chunk of base layer dough until it is about as thick as a pancake or a tortilla and gently place on top of the mashed bananas
Gently arrange the chopped bananas over the entire surface
Cover with the chocolate layer.
Keep Refrigerated until serving.