Where?: tibits vegetarian restaurant, 12-14 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BA
At this time of year London’s Oxford St and Regent St are extra jam-packed with tourists, and shoppers laden with summer sale bags. So when I found myself there last week on a particularly hot and steamy afternoon, I was relieved to find that my intended destination – tibits vegetarian restaurant – was in a calm, plant-filled oasis just minutes from the madding crowds.
Known as the Regents St Food Quarter, Heddon St is a half-hidden restaurant enclave (the famous Momo restaurant has been there for years) with pedestrian access off the main shopping drag. It was buzzing with relaxed and happy al fresco diners on the day of my visit, and the tibits outdoor terrace was no exception. Nevertheless I chose an indoor seat, right by the huge open windows to catch a cooler breeze and watch the world go by.
tibits (I know, you just want to slip another ‘t’ in there) is a modern vegetarian dining concept from Switzerland. The small chain is well established over there, with an army of fans, and the London site – their first venture overseas – has been growing in popularity since it opened in 2008.
You might well associate the Swiss with great chocolate and cheese fondue (at least I do), but tibits’ fare is much more international, with dishes inspired from South Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At the heart of the concept is their ‘food boat’ where you fill your plate from a choice of over 40 veggie dishes, which are regularly reinvented and change with the seasons.
Setting sail on a food boat
I know what you’re thinking – food boat – isn’t that more Harvester than hip restaurant? I normally run a mile from any type of open food buffet (unless it’s at an excellent South Indian thali restaurant – but that’s for another blog post) but at tibits it feels quite different. Everything looked very fresh and appealing, and there wasn’t really a tired, dried-up looking dish to be found. I noticed the chefs were constantly popping up to take away older dishes and bring in new ones – so that gave me the confidence to dive in.
But before you start piling your plate to the rafters, you need to know the payment protocol – which will be explained to you by a member of staff when you arrive. You pay for your food by weight (£2.20 per 100g for lunch, rising to £2.50 per 100g for dinner) – so whatever ends up on your plate is popped onto a scale at the bar (rather like at the Post Office counter) and charged.
For a first visit, the whole price per weight thing probably won’t mean very much to you. It’s a case of topping up and taking your chance! My plate came to £11.30 – a bit more than I was expecting but I guess not bad value considering the freshness and quality of the food and the W1 location. They also do takeaway – great for office workers or an impromptu picnic in a London park.
I opted for smaller portions but a broader choice, so I could sample as many flavours as possible. The lentil salad (nowhere near as boring as it sounds) had a good earthy flavour, while the dried bean salad with walnuts and balsamic vinegar (the ugly duckling of the food boat, but actually a tibits best seller) offered an interesting, chewy texture and refreshing taste. Other goodies on my plate included jalapeno fritters (crispy batter on the outside, juicy on the inside with a welcome squidge of sour cream oozing from the middle), falafel (passable but not exceptional), a zingy tabbouleh exploding with mint, and a Thai Tofu salad which had the surprising addition of sweet melon.
All dishes were labelled according to their ingredients – vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, and the use of spices was extensive and subtle. As it was a really hot day, I went for mostly cold options, but there were also plenty of hot dishes to choose from, including an aubergine quiche and lots of healthy grain and rice-based dishes (like sushi rice with seaweed). While I would have perhaps enjoyed more of a chilli kick in some of my dishes, I was equally happy to find that had I brought my one-year-old son – being quite used to flavours like cumin, ginger and coriander – he could have happily eaten many of the dishes on offer.
My multi-coloured plate was accompanied with a deliciously thick mango smoothie made with organic yoghurt, mango, maple syrup and topped with garam masala (£3.50) – almost a meal in itself. I was also tempted by the freshly squeezed juices (from £3), but could not manage a whole one. Happily, some were available as mini shots (£1 for 25cl) so I went for a palate-cleansing Tutti Frutti with orange, apple, pear, kiwi and banana. Lovely.
It would have been rude to skip over dessert, so I scooped up a mini trio (weighing in at a total of £3.50): the Sticky Toffee pudding was reassuringly sweet and sticky and the London Cheesecake was light and refreshing (both recipes were invented by tibits’ London head chef, Brian) but sadly I found the vegan Peach Tiramisu to be a bit soggy and bland.
Overall the food was very good, but what I found even more appealing was the décor and ambience. tibits’ owners commissioned UK designer Trisha Guild to come up with a trendy design, and the interior is decked out in her signature funky wallpapers and textured fabrics. The restaurant had a refresh in April so there’s now a new Designers Guild look in purples and softer greens. It’s supposed to be Great Gatsby inspired, but to me looks more NY SoHo chic (what do I know!). The interior lighting is low and calm – just the way I like it – and it really feels like a place you can happily linger for quite a while.
A great bonus for mums and dads is that there’s a small children’s play zone in the basement area with nice wooden toys, a blackboard for your little darlings to scribble on, colouring-in things and a bookcase full of children’s books. It’s near the toilets, so I’d imagine not a great place for them to be hanging around at peak times, but on a quiet afternoon, it’s a really handy space where they can have fun while you feast on vegan lemon drizzle cake and chocolate brownies (both looked damn good!).
tibits is an all-day eaterie, serving breakfast (a buffet, of course) from 0930 to 1100 and its veggie boat from 1130 until late. There’s also an impressively long drinks menu at very reasonable prices for London, with cocktails (I loved the sound of the Apple & Cucumber Mojito, £8.50), organic beers and ciders (£4.20 a pint) and exotic-sounding teas like Rooibos Chocolate Chai (£2).
While I was there I was able to have a chat with one of tibits founders, who’d flown in from Zurich for a few days. The friendly and healthy-looking Reto Frei is a great advertisement for vegetarian living and one of three vegetarian brothers (yes, three) who conceived the Tibits concept. He says they wanted to create a chilled-out place that was simply known for its great food, rather than its great vegetarian food. “Its fresh, inventive, seasonally inspired food that happens to be meat-free. I’d say the majority of our customers now happen to be non-vegetarian, and we’re really happy about,” he says.
I’d certainly visit tibits again, next time with my family in tow, and I’m looking forward to a slice of that lemon drizzle cake….
[I dined at tibits as a guest of the restaurant. All opinions are my own.]
UPDATE: Ready my Life and Chai review of the tibits at home cookbook here.