Tendril, 5 Princes Street, London W1B 2LQ. Lunch discovery menu £35, dinner £45, à la carte £5.50-£19, wines from £33
In the heart of red-meat Mayfair, there’s a hotbed of vegetable-love. To the right, in a small parade, there’s Neat Burger, knocking out pea protein and corn-based patties, dyed what they think are the right colours by the addition of beetroot and turmeric. To the left is the Dutch-born Avocado Show. Granted, there are outbreaks of animal along the way, but the menu is mostly vegetable-led, that vegetable being the worryingly thirsty avocado. They will even make you a burger in which the bun has been substituted for two halves of an avocado. On the one hand I should try it before passing comment. On the other, don’t make me.
But the most interesting of these three restaurants on Princes Street, tucked in together for comfort, is in the middle. Meat-free cookery has reached a maturity where the classy thing to do is write about vegan menus without explicitly noting that no animals were involved in the making of your dinner. Then again Tendril, the restaurant of chef Rishim Sachdeva who has worked at Chiltern Firehouse and the Fat Duck, makes the point explicitly with the subtitle: A (Mostly) Vegan Kitchen & Bar. If he acknowledges it, I should, too.
Tendril started as a pop-up, first in a Soho pub, then later here, on this narrow site just south of Oxford Street. Sachdeva launched a crowdfunder to raise the £150,000 he needed to put down permanent roots at this address. I’m glad everyone chipped in. It allows me the opportunity to be the latest to rave about both his thoroughly good taste and his sublime technique; about his ability to use strident Asian and Middle Eastern flavours to get the most from prime vegetables, much as an already well-dressed dandy accessorises with a cravat and fedora. The deep-fat fryer helps, too.
In this, his cooking resembles that of the equally brilliant Helen Graham at Bubala, just perhaps in more formal tailoring. Although the website lists an à la carte, this evening we are offered only the £45 “Discovery” menu, which is edgy restaurant speak for “You’ll have what you’re bloody given.” This is usually my cue for a good old pout. I love restaurants because they let me make choices. Bring me a list, let me express my sordid desires. If I wanted what I was given, I’d stay at home, where at least I’d get to enjoy being ridiculed by my kids. But the word-spaghetti of the menu descriptions – “aubergine, kalamatas, tahini” reads one; “grilled beetroot, spring onion, smoked soy” reads another – is so alluring, so well lubricated with promise, that I give myself to it happily.
The first and last savoury courses are a partwork. That aubergine dish, the vegetable roasted to a thrillingly dark, slumped and smoky mess, comes dressed in the saltiness of olive and the smooth velvet plush of tahini. It’s baba ganoush that’s declined to be further pummelled, because the point has already been made. Alongside is a bowl of a white bean purée, the thickness of Dulux emulsion, honking of garlic and stained red with chilli oil. Use a slab of the crunch-crusted sourdough from Coombeshead Farm to dredge. Or pile it on the confit potato, which comes with a crisp fennel remoulade. Only a small bowl of salted cucumber, playing the part of Japanese pickles, feels like an afterthought. Apparently, it’s dressed with a gherkin ketchup. It lacks the colour offered by acidity.
Next, we have a choice. There’s a vegan plate of dark, chewy oyster mushrooms alongside a crisp-shelled croquette boasting an almost liquid centre tasting intensely of the company it’s keeping. Or there’s a vegetarian cylinder of crunchy, barely cooked courgette, hollowed out and filled with a rice pilaf seasoned with the saltiness of feta, the latter the cause for saying the restaurant is only “mostly” vegan. It comes sprinkled with puffed black rice and rests on a bed of a sultry harissa sauce. We try both and accept the offer of an additional £6 course of leek fritters. It’s a crisp, deep-fried orb of oniony joy, with a pungent curry-leaf sauce that tastes like a good spice cupboard smells.
Onwards to the second partwork, our main course, even though everything has so far floated past us in an unstructured march that plays against such old-school hierarchies. It’s focused on beetroot two ways: in square blocks, arranged like books on a shelf, hiding under miraculously thin slices that still have bite. The sweetness of the beetroot is spanked away by the smoked soy sauce. I don’t know how you smoke soy sauce. I do know we all should. It adds the deepest of caramel tones to the salty hit. An accompanying bowl of lemongrass rice is a little porridge-like. Make up for it with the freshness of pak choi leaves so baby they’re practically foetal, under a shower of sesame seeds. Corn “ribs” come charred with the saline hit of seaweed.
There’s an awful lot going on here. It’s restless but focused and jolly. Looking at the à la carte, I see our menu included all the good sounding stuff, save for the “Chinatown; purple potatoes”, which others have eulogised. It’s an awful lot for £45 a head in this corner of London. The bill will, however, be pumped up by the wines which, being vegan, come from small producers with bigger overheads. There’s very little below £40. I have a £48 bottle of riesling from Emil Bauer & Söhne called Sex Drugs & Rock’n’roll, because I am essentially a child. I did not throw a television in anyone’s swimming pool. I did like the crisp citrussy notes.
The menu finishes with “dessert of the day”, but perhaps that part of the kitchen was having a bad one. We’re told it’s a poached pear and almond frangipane tart. We are served a clumsy square of something so small it’s hard to know where pear ends and frangipane begins. It comes with an oat milk custard that does at least prove you can make custard with oat milk and without eggs. No matter. The narrow, downlit room is full tonight, and there is the buzz you get when people have found their way to something distinctive, clever and objectively good. Just go elsewhere afterwards for an ice-cream. Vegan, natch.
West African restaurant Akoko, in London’s Fitzrovia, is to get a sibling. Restaurateur Aji Akokomi will open the 40-cover Akara on a site in Borough Market next month. It’s named after the West African black-eye bean fritters, which will be a feature of the menu, filled with prawns, scallops, ox cheek or mushrooms, alongside barbecue dishes and a variety of pancakes.
What do you do if you own a couple of restaurant brands that are performing poorly and proving a drag on the rest of your business? If you’re the Restaurant Group, which owns the successful Wagamama brand, you pay a rival company to take them off your hands. TRG has just paid £7.5m to Big Table Group to take over the 75 Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito sites, which equates to £100,000 per restaurant. Big Table already owns the Las Iguanas, Bella Italia and Banana Tree brands.
The venerable Italian restaurant Enoteca Turi in London’s Chelsea, long regarded as one of the best in the capital, is under new management. Founders Giuseppe and Pam Turi are retiring after 30 years. The restaurant has been bought by industry veteran Dominic Ford, who over the years was involved with L’Escargot and the original brasserie on the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols. Additional investment has come from David Gleave of Liberty Wines. The deal gives them the brand, the leasehold on the property and, of course, one of the great Italian wine collections (enotecaturi.com).
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