I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Like a Fallout vault dweller, blinking their way into a new world…
Cards on table, especially if you’re not a regular reader: I love my meat. There’s a fair chance I’d love yours, too. Those sticky bits in the tray after a lamb roast? Those little ‘chef’s rewards’ under a chicken? Rack of lamb served a blushing pink. Chorizo and fried eggs. The mineral depth of dry-aged beef. And it’s not just land-bound flesh. The briny tang of that first oyster, the Tabasco wallop of the next. The mackerel caught on a light line and barbecued over beachside coals.
My most memorable meals have all involved meat- often, huge quantities of it. Like the half a lamb I devoured with my best friend, one afternoon in Segovia. Or the two pounds of bone-in ribeye at Hawksmoors Guildhall and Air Street. Or the first time I ate a Beefy Boys burger. Twice. It’s all grist to my mill.
But I have a natural intellectual curiosity; for which, read ‘nosy bugger’. Hence, shipping up at Anna-Loka (“Anna”-food, health or earth, “Loka”-world or planet. Here ends today’s Sanskrit lesson) the newly opened vegan restaurant on Albany Road. Hare Krishna monk Adam El-Tagoury, formerly of Café Atma, has secured funding (in part, via the Indiegogo platform) and the doors opened a few days ago.
The place was throbbingly busy for Sunday lunch- we nabbed the final two seats. The decor is pretty much what you might expect: all exposed brickwork, stripped pine, whitewashed walls. A corrugated tin roof and some walls, some reclaimed timber. If you’re ticking off the boxes on your ‘spot the hipster hangout’ ready reckoner and rolling your eyes, your mood is unlikely to be improved when I tell you the drinks are served in glass jars and the menus are on clipboards. But ease off a moment.
We chose from the brunch menu, available until 2pm, with a couple of sides. It soon became clear the kitchen was struggling to keep up. Given this was their first week- and a family party of around 20 filled the back room- you’d have to be the worst kind of churl to hold it against them. With no alcohol on the menu, I passed my time with a Virgin mojito. It boded well for the food. Staff apologised several times for the wait. I was just hoping it would be worth it.
Happily, any misgivings are banished in seconds.
Pan fried greens are superb. The greens, carrying a great deal more ‘crunch’ than usual- they were more ‘warmed through’ than ‘cooked’ if that makes sense- are stir-fried with garlic and chilli and scattered with sesame and pumpkin seeds. Although it’s rather a relief to be served vegetables which still zip with freshness and life when they arrive, perhaps the thicker-stemmed broccoli needed a few seconds longer.
My ‘tofu rancheros’ was a large soft tortilla, skewered to contain a whole heap of goodness. Scrambled bean curd might not sound delicious, and might lack a touch of that seductive velvetiness of egg, but when teamed with a fresh-as-you-like salsa and a quite excellent guacamole, it becomes something absolutely joyous.
I’m not sure the sight of me eating this would prove entirely edifying; it barely touched the sides. Light, refreshing, wholesome: a spicy sauce, silky avocado, the crunch of shredded cabbage.
My wife’s ‘tofu florentine’ was of a similarly high order. The cornbread base was much lighter than expected, plenty of glossy wilted spinach and another dollop of the spiced ‘Any’ sauce and more of that scrambled tofu. Again, this was excellent.
The only slight disappointment were the chips, which came as fried halved new potatoes: the accompanying green chilli mayonnaise however, saved the day and was a standout.
I suppose the challenge here is to welcome the food on its own terms, to sidestep any ‘it’s not like…’ mindset. If I want bacon, I’ll pop into the butcher’s; I’m not massively attracted to the language of facsimile and substitution. Wales Online’s headline (‘Cardiff’s first 100% vegan restaurant is open for business… and pork sliders’) missed the point with some room to spare. Food should be appreciated on its own merits: is this pleasant to eat, or not?
But Anna-Loka does some very, very good things. I was genuinely enthused by what I ate today, so much so I’m here sharing the experience when I should be doing something more pressing. Abandon any lazy preconceptions; the food here is far, far too good to be some ‘niche’ or a try-once curio.
This is something rather special. This is Just.Good.Food.
114 Albany Road
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.