The Plant Club, vegan Italian food, London restaurant review

The words “vegan” and “pizza” together almost sounds like blasphemy. Add to that, “vegan mozzarella”, “vegan parmesan”, vegan… well, anything, and you could have an Italian uprising on your hands. While Italy might be famous for being the home of the Vatican, it’s the church of food that really holds the power. Which church is your average Italian more likely to furiously defend, I wonder. Say what you want about the pope, but don’t you dare put pineapple on a pizza.

And for good reason. If all Italy gave the world was pizza and pasta, that would be enough of a contribution.

I recently wrote about food that is truly delicious. I spoke of a greasy Cuban sandwich that changed my life. I said fine dining fare had never given me that deep and, quite frankly, emotional response. Pizza is up there with Cubanos, and pasta is not far behind. This is food almost everyone enjoys eating. Both rely on cheese – even if it is just an essential sprinkling of parmesan on a pasta pomodoro.

It is for this reason that I am so sceptical of vegan pizza, and vegan cheese in general, even though I know it must be part of a sustainable future. To be honest, I’m sceptical of pretty much any vegan alternative. The best vegan meals I’ve had are simply great vegetables, beans and pulses etc, dishes that just happened to be vegan and were eaten long before the word was even invented.

Whenever I go to vegan restaurants that push meat and dairy alternatives I’m left feeling like perhaps I enjoyed it, but never as much as the real thing. I usually say something like “it was good, but vegan stuff has a long way to go”. It’s almost as if standards are that bit lower for vegan food – as if it’s OK that it’s not totally delicious because it’s vegan. And I would never judge someone who says they outright dislike most vegan cheeses. I get it. It often has a weird texture and sticks to your teeth. Sometimes it tastes a bit like coconut – much better to have a bit of cheddar.

But I may have found the answer: north London’s The Plant Club.

The Select Spritz, an aperitivo that dates back to 1920, is a nice change from the regular Aperols and Camparis

(Sean Russell)

Don’t let the name put you off – I know it sounds like a vegan cafe where they serve £5 coffees with a tasteless croissant – but this vegan and gluten-free Italian restaurant opened my eyes to what is possible. Every single thing we ate was delicious. It is without doubt the best vegan restaurant I’ve been to, but also, perhaps, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to this year.

Tucked away near Newington Green, its unimposing, minimalistic design doesn’t make a big first impression – you might even miss it. We certainly did as we cycled up from the canal and onto the busy road. You can either eat at the few tables outside, in the front, or in the delightful greenhouse-like room at the back where you can sit next to the open kitchen and watch the chefs at work. This is where we chose – I love an open kitchen.

We order a Select Spritz and Negroni. Select, an aperitivo concocted in 1920, is often referred to as part of “the original Venetian spritz”. It is a deep red colour, like Campari but less bitter. Both cocktails are refreshing, a nice change from sweet Aperol or strong Campari.

The parmigiana reminds me of a dairy version I had in Emilia-Romagna

(Sean Russell)

We start with a “deluxe garlic bread” and “parmigiana”, double quotes intended. It isn’t really a garlic bread. It’s more like a bruschetta served on a crispy pizza base, and lets the ingredients do the work. And the heaped datterino tomatoes, garlic and oregano taste just like bruschetta you get in Italy.

The Plant Club goes one step further and adds superstraccia, a vegan version of the delicious Italian stracciatella spreadable soft cheese. You might be wondering, why use the best quality vegetables if you’re just going to put a horrible sticky vegan cheese on top? This is not the case here. I don’t really know how to describe it other than it tasted exactly like dairy. It tasted wonderful.

Baffled, I scoop a bit of the cheese off the garlic bread to taste on its own. I’m so confused – it tasted like milk, real milk, real milky stracciatella. I wolf down the last bit of garlic bread.

It’s worth saying that this bruschetta-like, cheesy garlic bread would have been just as good if it had been served in a non-vegan restaurant. By which I mean, I’m not lowering my standards just because I expect less of vegan cheese. This was really fresh tasting and mouth-watering.

The Regina pizza with truffle, oyster mushrooms, buffalo ‘notzarella’ and ‘parmesan’: one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had

(Sean Russell)

Excited, I turn my attention to the parmigiana. It reminds me of a dish I had sitting in a little restaurant in the ancient fishermen’s village in Rimini in Emilia-Romagna. The Plant Club uses a cashew nut alternative for parmesan that delivers that nutty taste of perhaps my favourite cheese of all. Again, the quality of the ingredients shines through. The baked aubergine, tomato and the vegan cheese… all of it wonderful.

For mains, we have the Regina pizza with truffle, oyster mushrooms, buffalo “notzarella” and “parmesan”. And the paccheri pasta with courgette sauce and Burrella – a vegan burratta. Again, this pizza doesn’t just stand up as the best vegan pizza I’ve ever had (which without a doubt it is), but it could go toe-to-toe with my favourite pizza in London where the mozzarella is dairy.

Paccheri pasta with curgette sauce and Burella, vegan burrata

(Sean Russell)

The pasta sauce is creamy and smooth, a slight hint of chilli cutting through the courgettes and superstraccia. It’s impossible to tell the difference between the perfectly cooked gluten, egg-free pasta and normal pasta. In fact, Italy has been making gluten-free pasta and pizza for a long time, so it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Finally, although I’m stuffed, I have to see their cheesecake. It nails the texture of cheese (soy yoghurt and chickpea), and with agave syrup drizzled over it, is incredible tasty. As it happens, I’d had a dairy cheesecase the night before, but this one is better – and cheaper. Not overly sweet, the “cheese” complementing the strawberries and agave.

The cheesecake nails the texture

(Sean Russell)

What I will say is this: if you’re allergic to nuts, be careful, as they can be hard to avoid here. Many vegan cheeses are made from different types of nuts.

Overall, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have known that the Italian chef, Antonio, wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t going to be good. Food is far too sacred in Italy and there’s a reason the country regularly ranks as the world’s favourite cuisine. And The Plant Club does it all without breaking the bank – a pizza is around £16 and pasta around £12.

I was sceptical at first, but I have found what I think is perhaps one of the tastiest vegan restaurants in London. Suddenly “vegan pizza” doesn’t seem like such a blasphemy.

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