Throw a nutritional yeast dusted cauliflower in any direction at the moment in London and odds are you’ll find yourself hitting a vegan restaurant. Whether it’s full on plant based or a more gentle flexitarian approach, chances are you either know somebody or are somebody who’s adopted a meat free diet in a time when the whole world seems to be in the throes of animal free dining. Living in the capital means you’re spoilt for choice with vegan options that cover everything from the casual Cook Daily at Boxpark Shoreditch to the more formal Manna in Primrose Hill, as well as making sure you don’t go hungry at breakfast – try Farmacy in Westbourne Grove – or lunch – head to Ethos for PAYG plates – or dinner – Dalston’s Club Mexican will see you right.
However just because something appears to tick all the boxes of branding, product & vibe, doesn’t mean they actually deliver and recent meals at both Mildred’s in Soho and By Chloe in Covent Garden proved just this. In Mildred’s, you have a stalwart of London’s edible landscape and a small chain that’s been around since the late 80’s with cult-like fandom stretching across boroughs & generations. In Chloe, who rocked up earlier this year, we now have a darling of the New York food scene on this side of the pond and only in one location so far but with up to seven more being promised across the city by the end of 2018. That’s an impressive level of confidence and one that – along with the fervent adoration lavished on it in the Big Apple – made this somewhere that inched past other more long-standing inhabitants of my ‘must eat’ list. Let the lesson here be that this isn’t always a good thing…
It’s undeniable that the branding behind By Chloe is on point. A millennial’s dream of how eating out should look, this place is a voguish paradise with hanging raffia chairs, bubble-gum pink neon signage and quirky illustrations. Staff are as effervescent as the kombucha if, at times, a little confused about who’s asked for what. Don’t come here alone because bagging seats and ordering at the counter is a two-person job. There’s also no ambience to suggest that this is a pace to linger so if you’re after a quick bite, you’ll be fine here with the vibe of get in, get ordering, get ‘gramming & get out.
The biggest disappointment here though is sadly the food and it really pains me to say that because both long-time, 24/7 vegans and people dipping a virgin toe into vegan waters deserve to be inspired and delighted. Macaroni cheese and avocado pesto pasta – both of which incur an inexplicable-to-me-in-this-sort-of-restaurant extra £2 charge each if you want gluten free pasta – were average at best. The joy of a great mac’n’cheese is the in-your-face cheesiness of it and that was missing here in a pot of pasta that was gruel thin & lacking in flavour. A saving grace of the visit was the shitake bacon that topped this dish but once those crispy, umami packed pieces had been picked off, what was left was, well, left.
A pesto meatball sub boasted the most flavour out of anything we ate but one bite in and it was submerged in a sea of tomato paste with their texture melting into the soft white roll with little distinction between the two. Hands down though, the most disappointing thing tried was the Shepherd’s Pie. Created especially for this location, the combination of seitan (a wheat protein), mash & veggies arrived looking fairly promising in its football pie tinfoil tray but underneath the (very good) beetroot ketchup drizzled potato topping, there was little to like unless you have a thing for loosely textured, pea studded grey sludge. Every bit of the rich, luxurious, deeply flavoured trademarks that make a shepherd’s pie so comforting & moreish was missing here and with a price tag of nearly £8, I resented missing out on that.
TBH all prices were far too high for what arrived and even my incredible sounding drink – peanut hot chocolate – failed to deliver anything more than a watery texture and resounding scarcity of both peanut & cocoa flavours.
If Chloe has arrived in a blaze of glory, Mildred’s can be found quietly holding court in the manner of someone who might not be the coolest kid in school but who is unapologetically self-assured about what she can do.
Smoked tofu, fennel, apple and white bean sausages are meaty – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – yet light and partnering them with the flavours of cider & dill and the textures of shredded hispi cabbage & creamy mash offers up a plate that is simultaneously comforting & sincere.
Sri Lankan curry is delicately spiced and packed with sweet potato & green beans but it’s the roasted lime cashews and tropically sweet coconut tomato sambal that really turn it into something extra special; you’ll want to take them home by the bagful to sprinkle on everything you eat.
A side of mixed roasted squash with spinach is beautifully cooked with charred edges to soak up the tahini and hazelnut-almond dukkah while Persian lime & rose petal harissa chickpeas are moreish, if a little unexpectedly bulked out with chunks of carrot more suggestive of leftovers than a pre-planned recipe, admirable in its no-waste intention even if the realisation didn’t work for everyone at our table.
If Chloe is painted-by-numbers trendy for the teens, Mildred’s seems to attract an older, more creative crowd; the Soho restaurant was constantly full during the late lunch hour that we were there and whilst the vibe has a touch of the late 70’s about it, it’s got a confidence that suggests a security in who it is and what it does and it’s that which will guarantee the kind of repeat customers that those behind a ‘gram it and go ethos might find harder to secure.