I’m sad to say, but the phrase “we’re going to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner” does not usually inspire whoops of delight in my house. Nick, for a start, believes that any proper meal contains meat (!) and although I am not a huge red meat fan, I do tend to feel a little cheated if there is not even a possibility of fish or shellfish on the menu. But when I was invited to review Tibits vegetarian restaurant and found out that you pay for your food by weight, my curiosity was piqued. I had recently seen a TV programme about the poularity of pay-by-weight restaurants in Brazil but had never heard of one in London. I was intrigued.
Back in 1898, three Swiss brothers (Reto, Christian and Daniel Frei) came up with the idea of starting a high-class fast food vegetarian restaurant – but to put their idea into practice they needed the support of a professional with a background in gastronomy. As luck would have it, Rolf & Marielle Hiltl, owners of the Hiltl Restaurant (Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant founded in 1889) heard about Frei brothers’ business idea in the media and contacted them. Together, they founded a company to develop the idea further and the embryonic Tibits was born.
Tibits is situated just off Regent Street in a rather lovely pedestrianised street filled with plants, directly opposite old Moroccan favourite Momo. The sleek and spacious interior is filled with natural light from the floor to ceiling windows as well as the huge skylight at the back of the restaurant. Upstairs there is an elliptical buffet bar (referred to as the food boat) with cold food on the lower level, hot food on the upper level and garnishes, sauces and bread rolls (including gluten-free options) at the ends. Each dish on the buffet (about 30 in total) is clearly labelled, with main ingredients listed below and many dishes are Middle-Eastern, Asian or Thai-inspired. Once you have piled your plate with the dishes of your choice, your food is weighed by the lovely, smiley staff at the bar and you pay accordingly. At lunch, 100g costs £1.95 and at dinner, £2.15.
Downstairs there are more tables (including a lovely long table directly underneath the skylight) and a kids’ play area (a bonus for mums who cannot face another meal at Giraffe!). Being food bloggers, Michelle and I bagged the table directly under the skylight for its great natural lighting and contemplated our food choices while sipping on one of the new Tibits bottled fresh fruit juices squeezed on the premises (carrot and orange for me; strawberry for Michelle). Both of us felt that our juices could have done with a little extra oomph, but they were pleasant and free from preservatives and colourings. A non-bottled Red Fitness (non-alcoholic apple, fennel, lemon and blackcurrant juice blend – £3.40) and Michelle’s strawberry cocktail (alcoholic) were better – packed with flavour and very fresh.
My first run to the buffet was to check out the cold foods. There was a great selection, from the pedestrian to the fairly exotic; for the lovers of green leaves as well as the lovers of pulses; and a great range of salad dressings and sauces. I came back with vegetable antipasti (tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, basil and balsamic); red rice salad (camargue rice with peppers and courgettes); mushroom antipasti (various types of marinated mushrooms with bell pepper bits); green olives; rocket salad; red pepper hummus; and teriyaki seeds & crispy onion to top the rocket salad (£7.50 in total, plus a free bread roll). Michelle filled her plate with Lebanese tabouli; black quinoa salad; Indian chickpeas; and aubergine antipasti. My runaway favourite was the heavenly red pepper hummus which was creamy and slightly sweet from the peppers. I was also impressed by the chewy, nutty rice salad; the mushroom antipasti; and thought I might like to be left alone with an entire bowl of the crispy onion bits and a spoon (yes, it was that good). I was also impressed by Michelle’s quinoa salad and the tabouli, but found the chickpeas to be underspiced and both the vegetable and aubergine antipasti to be fine but uninspiring.
There were fewer hot foods than cold and I have to say that there was a definite leaning to the starchy side: lots of potato, plus pasta, plus dough in the samoosas. Not a problem for me, but disconcerting if you are avoiding carbs. On my second run to explore the hot foods, I came back with creamy vegetable curry, spicy potato wedges, bami goreng (Indonesian spicy stir-fried noodles and vegetables), jalapeno chilli poppers (jalapeno chillies filed with cream cheese, crumbed and deep-fried), falafel (fried chickpea patties), vegetable samoosa, and yet more of the red pepper hummus (topped with their home-made harrissa paste) for £5.80. I found the falafel to be a little dry and disappointing (this could be a function of the fact that they are relatively small patties) but liked the vegetable curry and the samoosa, which was doughy but well-spiced. The jalepeno poppers were very moreish but the highlight of the hot foods for me was the deliciously spicy bami goreng. I loved the harissa/hummus combination as well as the taste I had of their home-made tomato chutney.
Desserts were the only duff note. Not only was the dessert section of the buffet the only part that looked like it had been mauled by customers, the desserts just were not very visially appealing. The apple cake looked as if it had disintegrated; the muesli with fruit yoghurt looked like purple gravel; and the cheesecake squares looked beige and apologetic. Still, we persevered and tried a few. The fruit salad looked innocuous enough, but it was the bowl of ripe strawberries that caught my eye. I also took some of the apologetic-looking cheesecake and some vibrant yellow mango mousse. The strawberries were good, other than harbouring some mushily squished fruit at the bottom of the bowl; the cheesecake had a peculiar gritty texture; and the mango mousse seemed a little heavy on the cream and not so heavy on the mango. Not a highlight. But the coffee that I ordered was very good.
All in all, I liked tibits. Although not every dish was stellar, I was impressed by the range of food and by the fact that even towards the end of the lunch rush, the dishes did not look messy and decimated as buffets sometimes can – staff regularly replaced dishes and tidied up the serving area. I also liked the decor and the smiley bar staff, and I thought that the prices represented good value for money. If I worked close by, I’d be in here every day buying lunch as it’s quick, ralatively cheap, and healthy – and the paying by weight idea is very democratic. As it is, I don’t work nearby, but I do have vegetarian friends, and this is definitely one of the better places in London to take them for a meal. Click here to read Michelle’s review of our meal and click here for a few extra photos in my Flickr abum of the meal.
Thank you to Tibits and Wavelength PR who arranged and sponsored this meal.