The Almond Tree is a small café based in Brighton serving exclusively vegetarian and vegan food. Its modest, unassuming exterior hides some of the best quality and lovingly created food in the south-east of England. The aim is not to impress with long lists of fancy ingredients and decorative displays of food, but neither is it to offer simple and easy dishes to the masses. It's a labour of love, where every single dish feels like it has been made especially for you. Many restaurants aim for that home-cooked meal feeling but fall short, whilst The Almond Tree has you enjoying good food, whilst evoking a hint of nostalgia for familial cooking.
I've been to The Almond Tree several times before, but this review is going to be slightly different. Firstly, the café closed for several months towards the end of 2014, and has recently been refurbished. Secondly, this is taken from their Valentine's Day special menu - the first of their planned event evenings. Normally, they shut in the evenings, so food is a breakfast/lunch affair. But this three-course meal provides an apt opportunity to review the café anyway.
Before headed for the Almond Tree, my partner and I picked up some drinks. This was a BYOB event, which I think is always a plus. You get to choose exactly what you'd like, without paying obscene amounts for a bottle of wine or a few beers. If BYOB isn't to your taste, there were still drinks on offer at the café, so really it's a matter of preference, but you can't deny having the option is a bonus.
When we turned up, the lovely staff greeted, introduced themselves, shook our hands and took our coats. It's that initial personal touch that makes The Almond Tree an experience, and not just about the cuisine.
But it didn't stop there. Just a couple of minutes after we'd be shown to our table, we were offered a (free) glass of Prosecco to start the evening. We sat sipping our Prosecco, and were able to see the chef cooking our meals in the open plan kitchen just metres away. This filled the room with rich aromas of roasting vegetables and gentle spices.
The first course was a parsnip and ginger soup, topped with sliced fried tofu and kale crisps. A warm, thick, wintery soup that was smooth and packed with flavour. The tofu was fried to perfection - chewy yet tender, and marinating before my eyes in the delicious soup, whilst the kale crisps provided a nice contrast to the texture. Initially I thought they may be a bit out of place in this soup, but as soon as I tasted the combination it all felt right, with the kale slowly turning soft as it sat in the soup. A brilliant start.
Our main was being prepared as we ate, ensuring wait times between dishes was minimal. I was unsure what to expect from the main. The menu read 'tofu and spinach bake on a celeriac and nutmeg puree, served with cherry tomatoes confit and crispy vegetables.' I saw the chef finishing the meal, and the other staff armed with cameras taking photos of the creation, again showing the real sense of pride about the dishes that were coming out of the kitchen.
Rest-assured, the food was delicious. The tofu and spinach bake was reminiscent of an omelette. Again, beautifully cooked tofu presented a meaty texture which began to crumble in the mouth. The cherry tomatoes were divine, and the puree added a sweet flavour to the other components of the dish. The vegetables acted as a nice side, but the main event was definitely the bake itself. My tofu misadventures (particularly baking and grilling efforts) have demonstrated how difficult it is to cook with that good ol' block of soya, so this was really quite an impressive dish.
The final dish on the menu was fresh fruit, soya and coconut whipped cream, and chocolate drops. That description does not do this justice. I was fully expecting (and would have been happy with) a plate of fruit and chocolate chips, and a side pot of cream. What came out was more like a sundae; a martini glass with the components layered. Whilst the initial soup was like a farewell to the cold winter months that had just passed, the dessert was like a greeting to summer. Sumptuous fresh berries marinating in juice combined with a thick, sweet cream and shavings of dark chocolate. So simple, yet the superlative point of the meal. Delightful.
And before we could leave, we were brought a plate of homemade truffles - thick, sticky dark chocolate to end a brilliant meal.
As mentioned, The Almond Tree is a labour of love. Every ingredient to the experience, both literal and otherwise, is provided with the sole aim of creating dishes that can be deemed as perfect. It'll never win awards for innovative cooking, or gastronomic brilliance. But instead it offers something much more important: a sense of passion in everything they do.