It probably didn’t take a lot of brainstorming for the owners behind Essence Cuisine to pick a location to open their new plant-based 100% vegan and raw restaurant. They hit jackpot with their tiny shop-cum-restaurant, sandwiched between the stereotypically cool ends of Old Street and Shoreditch, awash with start-up techies and hipsters laden with Columbia Road ferns.
Essence Cuisine is helmed by LA celebrity chef and champion of all things plant-based, Matthew Kenny, and London is his first venture outside of his Los Angeles restaurant. But are us Brits ready? Vegans and raw advocates everywhere swear he’s the best thing since sliced tofu. Take note of his name because you’ll probably be hearing it everywhere soon.
Venue and Atmosphere
To the casual passer-by, there’s not much to hint at whether Essence Cuisine is actually a restaurant or a new Apple shop. While minimal interiors in monochrome colour scheme set a futuristic backdrop for 21st-century dining, they do also have the effect of making the space rather clinical. I’m just going to come out and say it – the seating is not comfortable. It comprises of a wooden bench against the wall, and coupled with overhead strip lights, it makes the place feel rather like an interrogation room. There’s no hint of the wonderful decorative plates we’re about to be served. On the other hand, if there’s warmth lacking in the decor, the staff make up for it in personality. They’re hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic – it’s clear they live and breathe the concept and instead of being cheesy it’s actually inspiring.
The Food and Drink
Before my visit, if you’d presented me with the option of a ‘nut cheese board’ I might have raised a solitary cynical eyebrow. But today I stand corrected as a full-on convert – all hail plant-based cuisine! There’s the age-old joke, ‘how do you know someone is vegan?… Because they’ll tell you.’ Well who can blame them if the food is made at Essence?
You’ll probably see Essence’s dishes on Instagram before you have a chance to get down there – they are photogenic to the max. We started off with dehydrated kale in chipotle salt (£3.50) which were moreish and crispy against the passionfruit and ginger vodka cocktails. For our main course we ordered Heirloom Tomato Lasagna (£9.50), which arrived looking more like a fine art sculpture, with layers of crunchy sliced courgette and tomato bursting with flavour perfectly filled with macadamia ricotta – which I refused to believe was not actual ricotta – it tasted identical. My friend ordered Bangers and Mash (£9.50) which was a wonderfully nutty mix of walnut and Portobello mushroom and came with a swirl of soft cashew cheese mash. For dessert we couldn’t decide what to order so tried ‘half-and-half of the lime cheesecake (£5.50) with a zingy citrus glass and a crumbly rich chocolate caramel brownie (£5.50) made with dried dates and raw cacao. The slate slab arrived looking like it should be hanging in a gallery. I finished the meal full but not uncomfortable – so often the case when you over-eat on meat and dairy – and headed home knowing I needed to do 20 fewer sit-ups at the gym the next day.
Essence really is a lifestyle choice – as proven by the fact that it’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner I suspect some die-hard vegans will want to permanently set up camp. The great thing about the restaurant is that so often, eating a healthy raw, organic diet means paying above the odds – not the case here – main courses all come in under £10. It’s official – the plant-based movement is here, and it’s here to stay. Although I haven’t quite turned from cynical carnivore to fully-fledged vegan I’ve yet to go back for weekend brunch… watch this space.