An accident of scheduling found us out and about on Hallowe’en, rather than curled up in front of the Horror Channel gibbering softly as in previous years.
Among the usual ghoulish traffic of greasepainted toddlers roaming the streets, shaking down their neighbours for Haribo Tangfastics, we felt, or thought we felt, the whisper and hiss of some rougher beast at our backs, scaly and scuttling, magicked up from the darkest abysses of the political imaginarium in an unspeakable ritual.
The demons of Brexit are quiet again, at least for now (but see the main paper for more details). If they are reawakened on Jan 31, at least the occult energies surrounding the date will be less powerful – although, troublingly, it will be the anniversary of the execution by hanging, drawing and quartering of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators.
Doubtless many would see this as poetic justice. But then Fawkes is nowadays widely seen as some sort of libertarian populist rather than the shill for the Spanish crown he was, or aspired to be – a feat of reputation management that’s up there with the Austrians allowing the world to think Beethoven came from Vienna and Hitler from Germany.
Amid these febrile goings-on, a new vegetarian restaurant promised to soothe our shattered nerves, at very least. Naïfs sits on a quiet residential corner to the north of Peckham’s main drag, a couple of klicks away from the pulsating gastrodomes of Bellenden Road. Until summer the site was occupied by a well-liked neighbourhood-type joint, Aside, which only opened in 2017 – life comes at you fast in the 21st-century hospitality trade.
Naïfs has preserved (and subtly enhanced) its predecessor’s plywood-centric design scheme, and invested in a few on-trend houseplants. (It’s currently a few grand shy of its Kickstarter target, so maybe more will follow when funds allow.)
It’s an awkward space, long and thin, cinched in the middle and chopped in half by steps; but it has been made elegant and serene, in a vaguely Scandi-meets-Japanese way.
Chef Tom Heale used to cook at Vanilla Black, a pricey vegetarian restaurant in the City of London. Here in SE15 he, along with his partner Anne Stokes and his two brothers Max and Finn, are taking it down a notch – aiming for well-liked neighbourhood-type joint status, maybe.
It’s informal and friendly. But the food is still artful and ambitious, all of it meat-free and a shade over half vegan, with some eclectic flourishes (vadouvan, a French colonial curry mix, appears on one dish; koji, an umami-packed mould grown on rice, on another).
Smaller plates are “good to share”, larger ones – a disc of celeriac, a scattering of mezzalune stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke, which they puzzlingly call “sunchoke” – not so much.
Steering a course between veggiedom and all-out veganism allows a wider mixture of textures and (to be honest) flavours than any but the most inventive vegan cooks could achieve. It helped that where they’d used dairy ingredients (labneh, three different British cheeses), their quality shone through.
With a couple of dishes, though, I hankered after something a shade less middle-of-the-road, be it a touch of that old-school, mouth-filling, wholegrain veggie feeling or a massive postmillennial wellyfull of dirty-vegan robustness.
Little kibbeh-like aubergine fritters needed a more toothsome texture to let their flavour shine; while the celeriac was a beautifully cooked slab of celeriac, prettily dressed and pungently seasoned, but still, when all was said and done, a slab of celeriac – somehow resistant to the alchemical transformation that today’s chefs are able, on a good day, to bring to a slab of cauliflower, say.
A thing I struggle with in this column at times – I know, poor me – is that I always know I’m eating somewhere in order to write about it, and it can be hard to step back from that and try to work out how I’d feel about eating there for a date, a birthday, the Manifestation on the Earthly Plane of the Dark Lord Astaroth or just because.
In the case of Naïfs I can absolutely imagine going there every few weeks if I lived nearby. It’s urbane and likeable, and distinctly different from other plant-based restaurants I’ve been to, in London and elsewhere. It’s also genuinely family-run in a way you don’t associate with such a (vaguely) fashionable enterprise – the character of the place is attractively intertwined with those of the people who run it.
I also think its veggie-but-not-vegan ethos, even if it has a slight downside when it comes to focus, is probably a good idea in purely practical terms, as it’ll reflect a range of preferences across a booking of, say, four – and, in some obscure way, it’ll be less off-putting to carnivores (as well, in a somewhat less obscure way, as people who don’t like watching a mound of cashew butter slowly, inexorably separating on their plate) than a purely vegan joint.
Incidentally, Brexit Day Version 3.0 isn’t just the 414th anniversary of Guy Fawkes being separated from his giblets: it’s the day after the 370th anniversary of the execution of Charles I.
Parliamentarians used to honour the occasion every year by eating a pig’s head: the French, always a shade classier when it comes to food, commemorate the execution of Louis XVI on Jan 21 with tête de veau. St John might be a better bet than Naïfs on those dates.