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Switzerland's contribution to London's vegetarian scene, Tibits, is tucked away in the corner in the unexpected food quarter of Heddon Street. Situated only a few minutes walk from the hubbub of London's shopping districts of Regent and Oxford Streets, this little nook is very handy for a spot of healthy, veggie eating after a serious bout of retail therapy.
The restaurant is part of a Swiss veggie chain and is associated with Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant Hiltl. It is open all-day-long and has the look and feel of a laid-back lounge bar at first glance. But as you walk into the cavernous restaurant area, it is soon transformed into a family-friendly room with pretty drapes, trendy wall-paper and matching, comfy, yet luxurious felt-topped seating.
It's a versatile venue - you can take the kids or your parents to lunch there in the afternoon (without it being too overwhelming) and you can also enjoy a lazy grown-up drink with your girlfriends or work colleagues late into a summer evening.
The bar area is separated from the main eating area by a "food boat" which hosts a myriad of hot and cold dishes ranging from salads to pasta to rice dishes, onion rings, yogurts and potato wedges. What's more interesting is that one can serve up as much hot and cold food as one likes onto a plate, weigh it at the till and pay for as little or as much as one chooses to eat.
The serve-up-weigh-up concept, to my mind, helps make it quite easy to put together a sharing platter of the things one really likes and helps cater to fussy eaters and children. Complimentary bread and tap water are both available and there is a really extensive list of both healthy juices and drinks to go with the meal.
As a dedicated restaurant reviewer, I felt obliged to try a number of the hot and cold items and a jasmine tea . I served myself a plateful of tiny portions of onion rings, spicy potato wedges, breaded jalapenos, samosas, basmati rice, wok-fried curry, kohlrabi, dried bean salad with coriander, chunks of pineapple, chopped strawberries and guacamole. No, I wasn't being greedy - I'm just a very thorough reviewer. Hmmm, looking at that list again, perhaps I was being a teeny-tiny bit greedy. But can you blame me - where else can you imagine being able to put together a single plate with such a wide choice of veggie options ???
And the verdict. Well, I thought the food was fresh and well-cooked. I loved the breaded cream cheese filled jalapenos, onion rings , samosas and potato wedges. They were all fairly yummy , were made with good ingredients and had been fried in good-quality, fresh oil. The samosas were delicious and authentically flavoursome. I'd have liked both the onion rings and the potato wedges to be crispier as they seemed to have gone a wee bit soggy from being left out on a open bar; that said I was glad that they weren't oily or greasy. I was personally very happy with the selection of snack-y items (not just because I like unhealthy, fried food but) because like other fussy veggies, I feel deprived of these crispy items at most omnivorous restaurants. Why? Well, inevitably I can't eat deep-fried dishes at mainstream restaurants because they are cooked in the same oil as the meat or seafood and consequently cross-contaminated. So when I come to a wholly vegetarian joint, like Tibits, I feel like a child who's been let loose in a sweetshop with an unlimited choice.
So far so good. Now for a few things I didn't really like on the hot food menu. The rice was freshly cooked but was paired with a wok-fried curry which tasted as if it had being doused in a unsavoury amount of tamarind-like paste. The pasta, I left untouched, because I couldn't bear the smell of the strange (Swiss?) cheese that they had put in it; however this could be a matter of personal preference rather than a verdict on the quality of the pasta dish.
And what about the cold foods? The pineapple chunks were fresh and crisp, unlike the slimy pieces of chopped fruit one finds in supermarkets and most salad bars. The strawberries were luscious, whole and juicy. The dried bean salad with coriander was unusual but quite decent. The guacamole however was overly slick and unnaturally creamy with no taste of avocado whatsoever; one to avoid.
My jasmine tea was the highlight of the meal. It was served in a simple white cup with a beautiful floating dried flower that infused the hot water with the aroma of fresh jasmine. I was informed that the cup could be refilled and the flower would be able to hold its flavour for another cuppa. It all felt very natural and simple. And I'd certainly recommend it as a must-have at Tibits.
Since it's a self-service bar, you only really experience the service at the payment counter when you are paying up or ordering your drinks. I found the staff to be polite, honest and helpful. When I asked for a few further details about the restaurant, sous-chef Dean helpfully provided me with more info as did Venezuelan (deputy manager?) Luis.
To sum it up, Tibits is certainly a very relaxing and charmingly laid-back place to eat at. Given that it's quite new, and the credit crunch is still very much in evidence, the restaurant isn't jam-packed. So there's more than enough space to loll about comfortably on the seats or grab a sunny table outside. I loved the grown-up yet family-friendly feel of the place ; youngsters are well-catered for in terms of menu options. Prices are neither too cheap nor unbearably expensive at roughly £1.80 per 100 gms (for a plate of hot food at lunch time). The restaurant still seems to be tightening up its act in terms of catering to a far more discerning veggie food audience in London, so I'm sure we'll see more seasonal produce and fresh food on the menu. I'd personally like to see less experimentation with odd flavours & textures put together solely on account of their health benefits and would like to see better mainstream yet healthy vegetarian options. All in all, this restaurant is certainly one to watch - I suspect that it will be developing a strong following and not just amongst health-conscious and veggie guests.
12-14 Heddon Street
London W1B 4DA