Floating on the first floor of the Leman Locke Hotel in Aldgate East is the new enfant terrible of the vegan food scene.
Alter perches on the corner of the glass monstrosity, like a little bat filled with herbivorous delights.
We arrive like two drowned rats. The lift spirits us up and as the steel doors part, a warm enticing scent hits us square in the chops. Following our noses dutifully, we end up in a little space – all snug downlights, open bar, massive glass windows, and muted colours.
The glowing Alter sign in the corner of the room beams out into the rain. A lighthouse? A guiding light? A beacon of good, cruelty- free food? All of the above?
Tiny menus in hand, we squint at the rather small print. When we’re told about the mouthful snacks, small plates, pizza/bread dish, and slightly larger mains, my hackles start to rise, but we press on with help from the friendly staff.
As my clothes start to dry, I dive into a tamarind sour, a medicinal bourbon twist on the classic. A lemongrass beer has the all-expected and welcome citrus kick.
The taste sensations then arrive together, and lord are they a good-looking bunch.
The Izakaya pickles are stunning, like Mont Saint- Michel crafted out of fermented vegetables, with a chilli relish that you will lick clean off the plate.
The kung pao crackers are a party in the mouth – hard shells that pack a punch, with a backstory of their own, lightly dusted with seaweed.
The popped green rice snack with sticky soy is a little soggy for my liking, but my dining guest informs me I am wrong and foolish, and this gingery morsel is perfect. That’s me told.
Next is a myth of a dish, the pizza-cum-bread course that does not resemble either. Looking like a prehistoric monster, somewhere between an Ankylosaurus and a hedgehog on acid, these spikes of warm dough are (again) covered with pizza-flavoured dust. The red flakes like Australia’s Simpson Desert, covering your hands in a Scarlet Letter-esque brand of greed. Dipping the spines into a gorgeous ajo blanco and basil dip is pure, surreal joy.
Disappointment is sure to strike on such a high, and a watermelon martini proves to be nothing but a watery lemon affair – great for the ‘Gram but nothing special on the lips.
The trio of mains arrive – small, fragrant and seemingly designed for the backslide into winter.
Chengdu street tofu is a heavily spiced, fuming dish. The bamboo sauce cradling the bright white cubes of tofu is consumed in slurps of satisfaction, and the peanut crunch contrasts with the silken flesh most pleasantly.
The Jordan cabbage is a little hard for my liking but the coconut curry more than makes up for this, slicing up the dish with the provided spoon a knife might have been helpful to attack the vegetable’s hard husk.
Lastly, shitake and fermented soy dumplings, little fishes of dumplings, swimming in a cloudy kelp broth. My bones rejoice with this steaming dish, and my eyes get to admire the inside of the pretty marble bowls as I upend it into my gaping maw.
The singular dessert, sweet rice, Thai basil, and Kesar mango is what we want rice pudding to taste like but are always disappointed. Not the most attractive dish, but this sweet sticky pile more than makes up for its texture. Order your own! Or else spoon battles and not-so-polite forays will occur.
Founder Andy Goodwin darts out with each dish, explaining in passionate but muffled (due to the mask) whispers about each one’s roots and inspiration. Starting Alter as a way to shake up the common perceptions of vegan food and draw from the street food of Asia, he has roundly succeeded. My plus-one, a first-wave vegan, admires how far the diet has leaped. This stylish venue and its outstanding dishes are a far cry from the lentil-heavy grey goop of the early years, yet sidesteps the imitation junk food so in vogue now.
The lack of any substantial sides (rice?), appropriate cutlery, or a good martini is forgiven in the flurry of dainty dishes.
Alter is as sexy as it is successful, and although the dishes are reasonably priced, they are dinky, so there is the issue of accumulation. Nevertheless, with bottles of wine under 20 pounds, and food at this level of excellence, it’s a gorgeous little spot to delicately nibble and watch the ants drown below.
If you’re lucky you might see me there, as this little gem has crept its way into my heart.