Vegan, or “plant-based”, restaurants have been hitting the next level of late. No longer simply branded as a vegan restaurant per se, they’re becoming focused on and known for the style of the food first. Borough Market’s Mallow is receiving applause, as is Islington’s Tofu Vegan.
From the people behind the much-admired (and non-vegan) Xi’an Impression in nearby Highbury, Tofu Vegan’s name gives you the idea. A Chinese restaurant on London’s Islington’s Upper Street, this new spot is heaving seven days a week. The bustling dining space is home to happy (and noisy) diners tucking into house-made silken tofu in Szechuan sauce, mock meats like Chongqing chicken, dim sum and an extensive range of plant-based fare that demands pictures in the menu. The space is large, so much so that it spills out onto the pavement, much like the sizzling fish-fragrant sauce. Considering the scarcity of actually good places to eat on the Angel-end of Upper Street, it’s no wonder this place is as bustling as it is.
Reservations become booked up here weeks in advance. The team are also ruthless in approach to their grace period. My companion and I arrived 10 minutes late and our table had been given away. Given that, when queried, our young Chinese waiter admitted that their leeway time was a period of 15 minutes, the team helpfully fashioned a table in the back room of the restaurant. After all, two lawyers with a 7pm reservation weren’t going to take no for an answer.
Tofu Vegan’s menu aims to cover multiple regions of China, helped by the fact that they have three chefs in the kitchen who originate from different regions and bring with them varying experiences and knowledge. Ranging from street food from the Sichuan province and Cantonese-style dim sum, to cold noodles from North-Eastern Dongbei, and local delicacies from Xi’an… The menu is vast and somewhat daunting – my companion and I concluded that multiple visits are necessary.
To share, we went for the chef’s special of Spicy Fried Tofu in a “fish-fragant” sauce. This sizzling plate sees strips of tofu deep-fried and liberally seasoned with salt and the lip-numbing joys of Sichuan pepper, alongside a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Luckily, I’m informed, the dish tastes nothing like fish: instead, think slight bursts of chilli, garlic and a hint of ginger. Paired with a small portion of steamed rice, the combination was a marriage made in heaven. We couldn’t get enough. Though tofu is usually treated as a blank canvas for the flavours it carries, the tofu itself is top quality: these soya-based products are imported from suppliers in Taiwan to the owner’s, Chao Zhang, exact texture and taste specifications. The results speak for themselves.
Next arrived our Medley of three vegetable “delicacies” (aubergine, peppers and potatoes). The overwhelming tangy flavours, the changing textures of soft and crunchy, and the freshness is unlike anything I’ve tried before. Again, the saucy coating of the dish make the ingredients sing and every so moreish.
Not to miss, and “highly recommended” on the menu, are the Wontons in spicy sauce. I remain sceptical about the idea of vegan faux meats, which forms the filling to these dumplings – it has always felt apologetic and unnecessary. Surely plant-based food should be good because of the fact, rather than in spite of it? But notwithstanding the “meaty” bite, the dish is worth ordering just for the sauce with the perfect amount of spice.
It’s rare that a specialist all-vegan restaurant makes as big and as positive an impact on London’s eating scene as Tofu Vegan has – including amongst many native Chinese diner. What makes Tofu Vegan stand out is that it brings plant-based regional Chinese fare to diners – a rare feat in itself, let alone of such astounding variety and quality.
Tofu Vegan, 105 Upper Street, London N1 1QN