Essence Cuisine is a plant-based restaurant originally founded in LA with Matthew Kenney, who is (apparently – I’m relatively clueless when it comes to this type of food!) known as the world’s leading plant-based chef being the brains behind the concept, which offers a menu free from meat, dairy, gluten and refined-sugar.
When I was invited down to I was excited and intrigued in equal measures – I’ve only ever been to one other plant-based restaurant I think (Nama) – it was ages ago now (and I have started to draft a blog post which I still haven’t gotten round to finishing!) but it was also completely raw too, which was an experience to say the least. I know the plant-based diet is really on the rise at the moment, particularly in London, and it feels like people are desperate to label themselves these days as following a certain type of lifestyle or diet. I’ve certainly changed my eating habits since leaving University – not simply the fact that I’ve discovered that there’s more to life than £1 menus from the curry mile and cheesy chips and naan, but also cooking a lot more, experimenting with different ingredients and also (usually unintentionally) cooking a lot of vegetarian meals! Personally I don’t think I can ever see myself becoming vegetarian or vegan, not least because I don’t like labelling diets or lifestyles but also because I love all food and would hate to restrict myself or place rules upon what I can or can’t eat – having a peanut allergy is bad enough!
That said I absolutely love all foods, I’d like to think I’m pretty open minded and I love trying new places, so I couldn’t wait to try Essence Cuisine. I was a little apprehensive about taking Marcus – whilst I hadn’t really been a fan of Nama, he seriously disliked it, and I wasn’t sure how this would stack up in comparison (though in hindsight for us it wasn’t so much the plant-based concept but the raw concept that bothered us at Nama – it meant that absolutely everything – including ‘soup’ – had to be served cold!).
Everything on Essence Cuisine’s menu is 100% meat, dairy, gluten and refined sugar free. They’re open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, presenting an innovative approach to plant-based cuisine through an evolving menu guided by seasonal ingredients. I had a look at their menu online, and some of their dishes sounded right up my street. They have a range of bowls, salads and plant-based takes on popular dishes like lasagna, pad thai and tikka masala, as well as a cheeseboard which I was particularly intrigued by.
We went for brunch, but they serve their breakfast/brunch menu alongside their lunch and dinner menu all day, which is perfect for indecisive people like me who want to try everything!
From the outside it looks like any other café or independent coffee shop. Step inside though and it’s a whole different story – there’s a fridge on the right which has some takeaway boxes of meals, drinks and desserts but that’s about where the similarity to any other café ends. The place is as modern as their food concepts, with interactive screens displaying beautiful photos of some of their dishes and the layout of the restaurant maximizing every inch of space. Combine that with aluminium walls, the strangest of table layouts and lights so bright you’d be excused for wearing sunglasses, it almost feels like you’ve stepped into the next century.
There’s a solitary round table at the front, but the rest of the seating is in the form of two long wooden benches, with aluminium blocks (serving as tables) lining each side of the room. The tables fold out partly, giving you (slightly) more space and an oddly thin, rectangular table. If you have long legs (obviously not something I”d know anything about), it would probably feel reminiscent of the seating arrangements on a plane. Each table sits two people maximum and you sit facing into the centre of the room, with the benches narrow enough that you have to twist rather uncomfortably to converse with your guest. When it gets busy (and it does – by the time we left it was already pretty much full and it’s still so new that I’m sure there are many people yet to discover it!) you’ll probably find that the person next to you is disturbingly close.. but if you haven’t experienced eating your dinner with someone practically sitting on your lap then have you really experienced true London dining?
What the layout of the room lacks in warmth is more than made up for in the passion and hospitality of the waiters and the chefs. One came over to describe some of the menu and he was gushing with excitement – the type you really can’t feign – it was impossible not to smile.
Whilst we were deciding we were brought drinks – a cacao smoothie (which also had cashews and dates), coffees (they use Union Coffee beans!) and a matcha latte (obviously only for me!). They have a range of plant based milks but the waiter suggested oat milk and I loved the creamy, almost nutty taste of it. The waiter also brought us some kale crisps to snack on, which had a surprisingly realistic cheesy flavour to them! I’ve actually tried kale crisps before and I like them (but I genuinely really like kale and eat it regularly so I’m perhaps not the best judge) – the real test was Marcus’ opinion.. and to my surprise I didn’t even have to coerce him into eating them – he was not only happy to try them, he actually liked them!! I don’t think he’s going to be pestering me to buy some anytime soon, but still a huge win for Essence Cuisine!
After much deliberation (and with the help of the pictures on the screens!) we went for the garbanzo scramble (scrambled chickpeas, kale, green harissa, asparagus and portobello anchovies), the red smoked hummus (zucchini hummus, fennel, lemon and sprouted crackers), the essence bowl (tricolor quinoa, cumin sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke cream and cinnamon pumpkin seeds) and the avocado toast. I knew I’d probably be eating most of it but I tried to pick dishes that I thought Marcus would at least be willing to try. (Okay.. except for avocado toast – he can’t stand the stuff, but I love it!)
To be honest some dishes didn’t even appeal to me – their heirloom tomato lasagna sounded great – it’s served with sundried tomato marinara, pistachio pesto, macadamia ricotta and herb oil.. but on seeing a picture of it I discovered that the sheets are made of raw courgette – whilst I like courgette it isn’t something I’d chose to eat raw or disguised as pasta.
Everything we got was delicious though. My favourite was the garbanzo scramble – it was amazing! Packed full of flavour with a beautifully chewy texture and served simply with kale and tomatoes. I think the kale had been cooked in some sort of oil as it was far tastier than any I’ve ever cooked up at home – I even managed to convince Marcus to try a bite! After also eating some of the kale crisps he’s practically a convert..!
The sweet potato and quinoa bowl was nothing like what I expected but it was absolutely packed full of flavour! As one of the few dishes on their menu that is actually cooked the sweet potato came puréed and seasoned with the most beautiful balance of Indian spices. Paired with the quinoa and a surprisingly sweet pumpkin seed crisp it made for a lovely satisfying bowl of food, even though I have to admit that it could’ve done with a few extra elements to bulk it out a little.
The red pepper hummus was intriguing – I’m not sure how they made it but it was almost too smooth, with neither the texture nor the flavour of typical hummus. I wouldn’t have thought anything about standard hummus would have been barred from the kitchen – when I’ve made itmyself I’ve simply used chickpeas, olive oil and spices but this tasted nothing like.
Whilst I do personally prefer normal hummus to their version it was tasty nonetheless and it came with four types of crackers which were packed full of flavour and an array of different herbs, seeds and nuts.
Much as I enjoyed most of the savoury food, the desserts were most definitely the highlight. As someone with a sweet tooth I naturally gravitate towards sweet options anyway but these were honestly delicious. Yes they’re not going to compare to a sticky toffee pudding or a Nutella stuffed doughnut but I’m personally a huge fan of raw desserts – I make them all the time at home and when they’re done right I think they can taste incredibly indulgent.
The salted caramel brownie was naturally a winner – a dense raw brownie base topped with a date caramel and chocolate topping. It was sweet, chewy and satisfying, plus it came with an incredible caramel sauce on the side. The key lime cheesecake was amazing too – it was so smooth and creamy with a strong lime flavour and a hint of coconut coming through. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever had a real macaroon (I always go for macarons) but I can’t imagine their version tasted too different to the real thing – they were soft, chewy and (obviously!) packed full of sweet coconut. They come in a few flavours but I think chocolate was my favourite! The dessert platter is a great way to try them all but you get little more than a bite of each one, so I ordered a full dessert of the one I anticipated liking the best. The chocolate brownie was a safe bet but the lime cheesecake would’ve been a solid choice too.. and full size it was just so pretty, with a “biscuit” base and edible flowers.
The only slight failing is the cost. I know I was lucky enough to be invited down but I couldn’t help but notice the prices.. some seem astronomical. It’s difficult to compare them to other eateries as the food just isn’t comparable – with no meat, fish or dairy you could argue they don’t serve any pricey cuts or expensive seafood, but then the amount of care and preparation that goes into each dish can’t be ignored. One of the waiters passionately told us that their raw pancakes take 48 hours to prepare and I’m pretty sure he mentioned other dishes that spent several hours (maybe even days!) in the dehydrator! In particular the “cheeseboard” (which will set you back £15 if you eat in) with no more than a few bites of food on it (see below for the takeaway version) and the raw dessert platter (£8) was literally £2 a bite. That said, some of the breakfast dishes do seem a lot more reasonable – the garbanzo scramble was £7, and whilst the dishes may not be filling they’re certainly satisfying as they’re packed full of flavour.
As the waiter put it – it’s not the kind of place to come if you’re hungry and I’d have to agree – we’d had breakfast and ordered 6 dishes (plus smoothies) between us and didn’t leave particularly full, but the size of the dishes does mean you get to try more of their menu, and trust me you’ll want to if you’re half as curious as I was – every single dish is well thought out with each more innovative and exciting than the last.
To be honest although I couldn’t help but notice the prices I don’t think it will hamper their success in the slightest – in an industry where people seem more than willing to pay £20 (£20!!) for a single exercise class (a group one might I add – where you’re crammed into a room with little more than a square metre of space each) or over £5 for a post workout smoothie at said class (I went on a free trial and was quite simply horrified!) I don’t think people will have any issue with forking out for a unique take on healthy, nutritious, good-tasting food, and there’s no doubt that Essence Cuisine deliver on all of those.
Link to their website: https://www.essence-cuisine.com