It's difficult to review Saf - I've been here several times. Sometimes I've had great food and great service, and others I've had black hole-sized disappointments with both.
That in a nutshell is the problem with Saf, the garlanded vegan restaurant with branches in Shoreditch and Kensington - when it's good, it's great, but when it's not, it sucks the big one.
After sitting outside and finding the temperature a bit on the parky side, we asked to move inside. We picked a table and seated ourselves. We were told we could sit there as the section was closed, and shuffled off to another table. Only, the section wasn't closed - other people were sitting in it. But could we join them? Apparently not.
Asked my one of my dining companions what the soup of the day was, our waiter shrugged and told us simply "potatoes" - a rather plebian way to describe the light mix of sweet potatoes and other tubers that arrived with a full basket of crisp bread. So good was the soup it brought my hungover friend back to life - no mean feat given her resemblance to The Scream.
It's a contrast to a previous visit where a waitress asked me, after delivering a dish to the table, "Shall I describe your food to you?" After giving her my own dog-being-shown-a-card-trick bafflement - was she about to say "well, there's a green bit there, and that looks a bit like it's been in the oven and that's a carrot", I wondered? - she proceeded to regale me with a lengthy description of the varying elements of my dinner as it cooled on the plate. Yes, that would be the same elements that I'd read on the menu and selected my choice of dish based on.
Too much information once, too little another time.
This difficulty with balance is evident elsewhere - one cocktail tried by my friend was the equivalent of drinking carbolic acid garnished with a delightful flower. Mine, however - the Botanical Bellini - was an absolute delight.
I've had the Sunday roast before and enjoyed it hugely - there are few meals I'm fonder of than a Sunday roast, so that's high praise indeed. On the last visit, the plate put down in front of my friend resembled a landslide in a sewage farm. Presentation? Nul points.
And then - and then - Saf goes and gets it right so well, all my grumpiness is forgotten.
Take the beetroot and cashew cheese ravioli that used to feature on the menu - if I was on death row, that would have been my last meal and I'd gave gone off to the electric chair thinking I'd made the right culinary decision.
And then there was the tempeh. To go back a little - I hate tempeh. I've cooked it a few times, and each time, I've ended up binning it as a crime against the human tastebuds.
|tempeh sandwich with "potatoes" soup in the background|
I ordered it. I waited. I kept my fingers crossed.
Did Saf disappoint? Oh no. Not a bit of it.
I suddenly discovered a well of affection for tempeh that I never expected - a wish to take it home and introduce it to my parents as the love of my life.
It was a whole unexpected world of umami - yeasty and dark like Marmite or shiitake. Quite, quite lovely. And then those cunning Sat types went and added a load of mayonnaise to boot, which only made things better. Sure, there was a bit of greenery and a tomato - oddly flavourless, considering how easy it is to get hold of a decent British tomato at the moment - but it was all just second fiddle to the wondrous tempeh. If I had to carp, I'd complain that for £7.50, it wouldn't kill anyone to put a bit of carbs on the plate rather than some fade-into-the-wallpaper salad leaves, but I can't carp, because I've been dreaming about that tempeh sandwich for days now.
Then we come to pudding and I'm seeing the tiramisu - one of my favourite desserts and one which is still amazing when vegan friendly (cf: Inspiral Lounge). I'm dribbling. I'm ready to go.
Only what turns up isn't tiramisu in any world I know. It's some gooey, caramelly, sugared-up-to-the-nines pudding, but tiramisu it ain't. It was nice enough, but when I'd geared myself up for something along the lines of tiramisu, anything less is a disapointment.
It was a pendulum swing the other way for Saf - normally, dessert here is the highlight of the meal. They even have a dessert cocktail (Tipping the Velvet) which gladdens my heart as soon as it touches my lips. Even though it doesn't give you much change from a tenner, it's worth every penny. If I ever have to go out George Plantagenet style, I'm swapping the vat of Malmsey for a vat of Tipping the Velvet.
Eating at Saf can be a frustrating experience - when they get it right, they really get it right. When they don't, it's double frustrating because you know they're capable of coming up with really wonderful scran. Still, you can never say Saf is dull - aside from the Russian roulette style service, the menu is always interesting and more often than not, well-executed.