Toby, my friend and editor said, let’s have dinner. I decided it would be fun to torture him by taking him to a vegan restaurant. His wife Caroline is a vegetarian and she thought it would be fun too. Our fourth, Sean, didn’t fancy the idea at all and had to be prised out of his sofa in Crouch End with a crow bar.
I decided on Nama in Notting Hill, a yummy mummy cafe that has recently started serving dinner on weekend evenings. I arrived early on a Saturday night. White walls white stained pine furniture, a clean scrubbed virtuous space. Rather bare, four or five tables, even fewer people. I was thirsty. The menu offered plenty of liquid choice.
Fermented probiotic kombucha in several flavours, raw coconut water, cold pressed juices: a Green Goddess with cucumber, celery, fennel, parsley, lime and ginger, Internal Harmony with carrot cucumber lemon ginger and turmeric. There were infusions of lemon with lemongrass cinnamon and lime an ‘Immunitea’ of ginger, turmeric lime and cinnamon and various milks — almond, coconut, hazelnut, hemp or rice or soya.
There were smoothies made with freshly pressed sprouted almond milk, chia seeds and cashew nuts, avocado and chlorella powder. I could if I wished, supercharge my smoothie with the addition of maca, iucuma, ginseng, chlorella, cayenne or medicinal mushrooms. Apart from the cayenne I had no idea what any of these things were.
The smiley waitress looked a little light headed. I ordered a beer and a Blood Cleanser that was beetroot juice with apple, fennel and lemon. The beer was Celia, Czech, and was advertised on the label as ‘gluten-free, organic, handcrafted’. It was good. Light and fizzy. I wondered if I thought that because I thought it was good for me; was gluten-free beer a kind of well being placebo?
Caroline and Toby arrived. Toby, sceptical, put on his glasses and quizzed the menu. Caroline was thrilled. ‘I’ve never had to actually chose before. It makes you feel clean on the inside just looking at it. Rich food makes me feel sick. As a vegetarian you usually get everything covered in cream and cheese.’
Nama is not only vegetarian but vegan. Not only vegan but gluten-free. Not only vegan gluten-free but a raw food restaurant. Nothing is cooked or processed above 46 degrees. Because, according to their website, ‘food cooked above this temperature starts to lose vital vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.’
‘Thank God there’s alcohol,’ said Toby and ordered two bottles of wine.
At first glance the menu looked normal: croquettes, pizza, pad thai, Italian pasta, sushi. But on closer inspection not so much: the croquettes were made from a blend of cultured macadamia ‘cheese’ and coated in a buckwheat and almond crumb. The pizza had a walnut and corguette crust, the pad thai was made with rainbow noodles and mung bean sprouts, the pasta was spiralised courguettes, the sushi was riceless and fishless and made from nubbins of marinated kohlrabi stuffed with vegetables and wrapped in nori.
Toby pointed out that the menu made it look as if the vegans didn’t have the courage of their convictions. By labelling everything in terms of familiar cooked dishes they were forcing raw food through a regular food die mould. Why ape instead of invent? Why strain against the limitations of the normative instead of rising to a new challenge?
Sean arrived, late as always, ‘couldn’t get a tube’ and we ordered a sharing platter of pinchos which turned out to be raw veggie kebabs with a sort of salsa. OK. However we all loved the tom kha soup which was rich and velvet coconut and lemongrass and refreshing cold. We were surprised, we perked up. The mains arrived.
They were bright and colourful scattershot with green leaves, shredded yellow squash, unidentified sprouting things, blobs of green herbaceous sauce and swirls of orange. The pizza was salad piled on dense chewy wedges. Not unpleasant. The pasta was a mélange of oxymorons: butternut squash fettuccini with cashew carbonara and sage and aubergine bacon. The pad Thai was a riot, the sushi nicely ricely textured and pickly sharp. It all tasted very good. Here a nutty crunch, there a vigorous punch of sun-dried tomato. We swirled our chopsticks dipping and diving.
‘Given the constraints they’ve set themselves’ said Toby, ‘it has exceeded my expectations.’
I ate, I nibbled, I swabbed. It was all crisp and fresh and zing. But it was all — what was bothering me? — It was all a variation of chopped salad. Lots of ingredients, lots of Asian pow and piled up veggies, but, ‘What’s going on here?’, I asked everyone. Caroline was munching her way through all the variations, but she stopped too. We all liked the refreshing taste, we didn’t miss the heavy weight of carb and meat, we felt light and virtuous and crunchy. But…
‘I think the heat is missing,’ said Caroline. ‘I mean maybe this works at lunchtime, but at dinner you miss protein and carbohydrates to satiate, to satisfy. That’s the con, but then again its good not to feel sleepy and defeated by the meal.’
Afterwards I talked to an old friend of mine, a sleek and chic Notting Hill resident who eats carefully and well. Of course she knew Nama, she loves it. ‘Of all the vegan places I like it the best,’ she said. ‘But….’ Even the green and clean devotee had a but too. ‘It’s not necessarily somewhere I go in the winter when you want something hot and it’s not a place where I can take my husband. The dishes there do have a certain same-ness, and at the same time they are elaborate. I kind of prefer ordering the vegan option in a non-vegan restaurant.’
She thought about it for a moment.
‘I don’t love lots of complicated flavours jammed together. I think they need to simplify it a bit. Like a really good tomato with great olive oil. And what’s wrong with chopped avocado maybe with some coriander but nothing else?’
Even after starters and mains none of us felt the usual full and so we ordered three deserts. A hazelnut mocha torte, tiramisu and a chocolate caramel cake. May I remind the reader that they were made with no dairy, no refined sugar, no glutinous flour and no oven. The desserts were all dense and different shades of chocolate brown. Toby said the tiramisu tasted like sour milk (it was creamed coconut) but actually they were all pretty good in a chewy dark carob nut bars kind of way. But.
‘Hang on a second,’ I said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit weird they haven’t just got some really nice berries or sorbet on the menu? It’s summer!’
It seemed almost perverse for a gluten-free-vegan-raw-food restaurant to deliberately eschew the universally popular naturally gluten-free-vegan-raw dessert of fresh fruit. I looked at the menu again. It was peppered with the faddie buzzwords of healthy eating: flax seed, nutrient dense seaweeds, sprouted, kale, grawnola [sic], cultured cashew cheese, artisan, acai, activated. A language of exceptionalism that promised glowing vitality. Nama’s website affirms: ‘Here are some of the things you can expect from consuming a diet high in raw foods; increased energy levels, radiant skin, better levels of immunity, improved concentration, improved sleep pattern.’
But there’s something not quite right in the raw garden of Eden, a certain tautological snag. Why develop a new way of eating by making versions of regular dishes, while at the same time ignoring the regular dishes that already fit the bill? I was still pondering the paradox at lunchtime the next day when I made myself a quick cold courgette and basil soup in the blender. As I spooned the green goodness into my mouth I realised that if I drank it out of a straw it would turn it into a smoothie…