Food

Get Inside London’s (Raw) Saf Restaurant

High-end cuisine, raw food, and Americans collide in London’s simple, authentic eatery.

The financial square mile has a gourmet vegan restaurant nestled amongst the cocktail bars and clubs of trendy Shoreditch, London's equivalent of the East Village. Saf's menu is 75-percent raw, but there are cooked dishes too, and more than 100 organic and biodynamic wines and cocktails.

Entering through the picture windows, you notice there is a bit of a chic edge to the décor, with abstract art hanging floor to ceiling, solid black tables, spot lighting, and long orange lanterns. The place is warm and welcoming and the music is refreshingly soft and simple, accompanied by the occasional hum of the juicer. Unlike a typical raw temple, a stainless steel bar runs half the length of the room. This swish restaurant is packed with mostly young people despite the recession—someone must really know what they're about.

Those someones are Americans Chad Sarno and Joe McCanta, who met at Counter vegan bistro, in New York City's East Village. McCanta was the bartender who created an organic cocktail list, and Sarno served as a consultant who helped increase the menu's raw quotient. Sarno has also been a private chef to celebs like Woody Harrelson and Charlize Theron, and opened Roxanne's vegan restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area. McCanta grew up around wine in California, worked in a wine shop in Boston, and moved to New York to play in a band. The third maestro is Turkish spa owner Ersin Pamuksüzer, who brought in Sarno and McCanta to set up the first Saf restaurants in Istanbul and Munich before opening up in London in 2008.

The fourth veggie master in the London team is Kate Konderak, the front-of-house manager. Konderak offers suggestions from the five 3-course lunch menus starting from $17, or the fast option is a raw burger for $14. Menu 2 for $25 is the most popular, and includes a gazpacho soup, Thai green curry, and ice cream, but I'm tempted by menu 3 at $34, starting with Saf's legendary raw beetroot ravioli made with cashew-herb ricotta. Friends warned this dish is divinely soft and tangy, but no way was I expecting the first bite's effect, when my eyes closed and jaws went into what can only be called rawgasm. And we're nowhere near dessert.

Dinner starters are around $10, mains $20 to $25. A starter selection for two people for $28 contains the beetroot ravioli, vegetable maki, cashew cheese, or hummus with flax crackers. Raw mains include lasagna, tacos, and eggplant Pad Thai with almond sauce. Cooked foodies can enjoy tofu-and-mushroom dumplings or a bowl of teriyaki tofu, mushroom risotto, and tamarind salad. The signature raw "cheeses" are made daily and served with pesto, olives, sprouted raw rye bread, and marmalade. Yes, marmalade. This is England, though it feels like lower Manhattan.

If it's your anniversary or last night in London, splurge on the $80 7-course banquet. Add $40 for optional wine pairing. If there are several of you, call ahead to nail a place at the chef's table overlooking the open kitchen. Tonight's feast includes beetroot ravioli, vegetable maki, shiitake dumplings, sage pesto au poivre with cashew cheese, spicy coconut noodle laksa soup, and the big finish, chocolate ganache tart with spiced rum pear compote, complete with a second When-Harry-Met-Sally moment.

The huge wine list starts at $30 for a bottle, but my crew loved Saf's botanical cocktails, using herbs from the garden out back where you can enjoy a drink on warm nights. Try a mojito for $14 with chai-infused organic white rum. I choose an $8 non-alcoholic vegetable cocktail which has a rousing zing from mint that minutes ago was looking forward to a long life in a tub out back.

Gordon Ramsay has nothing to teach Saf, but Saf might have a few things to teach him. Five stars for service and food-and let's not forget those two rawgasms.

Saf Restaurant
153-154 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3AT
(+44) (0)20-7613 0007

Click here to the recipe for Saf's delicious Cashew Cheese recipe by Chef Chad Sarno.

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