Tofu Vegan has been everywhere recently. It’s been in the conversations I’ve had at the pub. It’s been on every other Instagram Story. It’s been in the paper. It’s been in my dreams. I’ve half expected to see a Tofu Vegan challenge on ‘Love Island’.
So, obviously, it was about time I checked it out. My expectations of the new(ish) Islington restaurant were sky-high – not just because of the hype, but because it’s by the same folk who did Xi’an Impression up the road in Highbury. That means the same folk who did those lip-smackingly good hand-pulled noods.
When it comes to Tofu Vegan, the clue’s in the name. The menu is entirely plant-based: it’s mock meat, tofu, and beancurd galore. But the fact it’s all vegan (and by extension, theoretically less damaging to the environment) isn’t the best part. The best part is that it’s genuinely delicious Chinese cuisine. It’s a wild bombshell of spicy, sweet, sour, and savoury – the kind of food that will shock your tastebuds and test your tongue with unusual textures. It’s not the watered-down chips-and-curry-sauce kind. It’s food that diehard carnivores literally couldn’t complain about and food that vegans will go apeshit for. It’s food to order lots of and share (or not share) to your heart’s content.
It’s a wild bombshell of spicy, sweet, sour, and savoury – it will shock your tastebuds and test your tongue
Three chefs, each specialising in different regional Chinese cuisine, work in the kitchen, painting a rough picture of this country’s wide and varied cuisine. We started with the ‘chef’s special’ dongbei sweet-potato noodle sheets. Wide, jellied sheets of yammy potato starch were slathered in a nutty, goopy sauce, with a nice crunch of veg balancing out the slimier texture of the noodles. Not too shabby.
The cloud ear mushroom salad followed: a fresh, fragrant bowl of chewy, moreish shrooms, coated with sesame oil and sprinkled with a kick of pickled chilli and coriander stems. The wontons in the house special sauce were, somehow, even better. Stuffed with shredded tofu and water chestnut, they had a nimble bounce that made biting into them a delight in itself. Then, the flavour hit. Deep, garlicky, fiery and fizzy, the sauce was an oily concoction of pure, merciful pleasure. I would have ordered a pint of it, if that sort of thing were socially acceptable (can we get that normalised?).
Our bigger plates came next. The gong bao ‘chicken’ with whole peanuts and big chunks of spring onion, all drenched in a sticky, sweet and sour sauce, used a spongy sort of mock-meat that was more like tofu than other chicken imitations I’ve tried. I actually preferred it: it felt lighter and more natural-tasting.
It’s the sauces that carry these dishes: the oil, umami and tingling spice
The sliced ‘fish’ (silky slabs of beancurd and strips of seaweed) arrived next, in a huge cauldron of sizzling chilli oil. Dried chillies and slices of cucumber lurked under the surface, making it an intriguing game of textural lucky dip. There was a slight fishy twang, but no illusion that it was actually seafood. Luckily for the taste, that didn’t matter. It’s the sauces that carry these dishes: the oil, umami and the tingling spice. I’d say order an extra rice or two so you have a vehicle to mop it all up with, but at £2.40 a portion, that tactic might not be for everyone’s wallets.
Fair enough, Tofu Vegan doesn’t look particularly knock-out. With hideous fake plants and cheesy illustrations on the walls, the decor is fun and unpretentious: but it doesn’t need to be anything more. The service was prompt, knowledgeable and very polite. And the food was definitely worth the hype. It’s recently opened a new venue in Golders Green, complete with a private dining and karaoke room (I know where I’m going on my birthday). It looks like Tofu Vegan is making moves to take over London, and rightly so.
The vibe Cheerful and chatty. Lots of ‘mmm, yum!’s from nearby tables.
The food Dazzling plant-based Chinese food that will turn you into a next-level greedy bastard.
The drink Tsingtao beer and a decent wine and spirit list. You wanna get tipsy? They hear you.
Time Out tip Wontons. Wontons. Wontons.