The human race started off eating only raw food, of course. Before conquering fire, presumably our Homonini ancestors’ diets resembled those of the wispiest supermodels.
But, taking my cue from our dazzling columnist Gillian Riley and her strong words in favour of ‘mucky eating’, I’m more at home dining on the charred, the glazed and the fried of this world, with the only thing ‘dehydrated’ and ‘raw’ being me after a night’s booze and grub.
New Shoreditch eatery Essence Cuisine does try and ease you into their world of clean eating gently, with its chromed interior and simple geometrics. Birdsong is piped into the loos.
It’s redolent of fellow Shoreditch vegan spot CookDaily, crossed with something out of The Fifth Element. Our first dish is appropriately space-aged – a proffered bowl of dehydrated kale prepared with a cheesy cashew cream, onion and garlic.
These are really nice – the simplicity and indulgence of a bar snack, but healthy. As my partner points out, it’s nice to have intact kale crisps, rather than the packet of green dust one normally encounters. It’s washed down nicely by a pink smoothie – mostly banana, with a hint of the advertised exotic fruits.
A word on the coffee: Essence get theirs from Union Hand Roasted Coffee, and it’s a lovely comforting blend. This, plus the fact that the minimalist tables fold out into desks complete with power outlets, should woo hotdeskers.
Our impeccably helpful waiter suggests we try the cheeseboard before moving onto the mains. There are many mystical ways of preparing cheese without animal products, but lordy does Essence’s work well – I haven’t had the pleasure of having any vegan cheese that lives up to the zingy flavours of these soft, dairyfree balls of indulgence.
There’s lemon and dill ‘cheese’ (deep, seafaring), ‘Cheddar’ (milder and milky) and a truffle and black pepper number that’s my personal fave. This is all paired with a lovely range of crackers, pear chutney, and pickled radish – not something I’d mix directly with some of the already-sharp cheeses, but nice as a palate cleanser. Overall, a showstopper.
While not quite reaching the heights of the cheeseboard, the mains have a lot to recommend them – my raw Pad Thai nails the eggy creaminess of Thailand’s national dish using sodden kelp noodles and marinated kale. The flavour is strong, a bit overwhelming at first, but the lime cuts through nicely once squeezed on.
The ‘lasagna’ looks almost funny – a mille-feuille for the salad set – but the Italian flavours (sundried tomato marinara, pistachio pesto, macadamia ricotta and a herb oil) are there in force even where the traditional shape is not.
The prices are very, very Shoreditch: the ‘dinner’ dishes are reach £9.50 to eat in, and aren’t giant portions (though through their nutritional density, the ones we had are surprisingly filling).
However, I’d argue that the pair of puddings are worth the £6.50 (to eat in, £5.50 to takeaway) – they will live long in the memory. The lime cheese cake is a frosty, sweet, citrusy block of fun (the cola gel that tops it is great too; a neat sensory trick) and the chocolate caramel brownie (actually, cacao and mejool dates stand in for the choc and caramel) is out of this world – an enhanced, guiltfree Mars ice-cream, if I may say so.
Overall, as is often the case with restaurants in this area, the fact that the culinary team quite clearly know their way around these still-niche ingredients – this is world-renowned plant-based chef Matthew Kenney’s first European venture, after all – and to me this is enough to blow away any suspicions of pretension or prissy over-healthiness.
Who knows, maybe a return visit would render me even less Gregg Wallace, and a little more John Torode.
94 Leonard Street