There’s deliberately no tonkotsu on the menu, but there is tonkatsu watermelon
Some tasks can feel impossible. Getting your kids to eat their vegetables, stopping your nan from believing daft things on Facebook and finding decent Japanese food in London for vegetarians. The latter is especially egregious given the high-quality vegetarian food available in Japan itself, such as the tofu and yuba dishes at Kyoto’s Sagatoufuine.
The problem, in the UK at least, is the knee jerk assumption that Japanese food automatically equals sushi. This then leads to hamfisted attempts at replicating fish using plant-based substitutes which, for now at least, is such a far cry from the real thing that you’d be better off with a cat chew toy in the shape of a fish.
Other parts of the Japanese culinary pantheon are far more amenable to Western-style vegetarianisation, ramen being a prime example. By day, Craving serves up coffee in an industrial estate located not far from the perennial building site that is Tottenham Hale. By night, it dishes up a compact menu of almost exclusively vegetarian and vegan Japanese-ish dishes.
The broth of Craving’s miso ramen had a respectable level of umami, as did the firm tofu wrapped in nori. What really set this bowl apart was the addition of pickled chillies as a garnish, its tart heat adding another level of flavour. Firm shiitake and oyster mushrooms had the necessary mouthfeel that the overly soft noodles did not. While disappointing, that was really the only serious flaw here.
Removing the rich soft boiled egg makes that miso ramen vegan-friendly. For insistent carnivores, there’s a version with added char siu pork. While not in the same league as the superlative pork available at some of London’s other ramen restaurants, the generously thick and wide oinky slabs were still pleasingly meaty with a light moreishness of their own. They could’ve done with a bit more extant fat though.
More thick and heartily firm slices of tofu are served at room temperature as a side dish, garnished with sesame seeds and a bit of dashi for nutty moreishness.
Grilled aubergine, allegedly glazed with miso and mirin nasu dengaku-style, was lacking in mouthfeel and flavour, although the garnish of sesame oil and crushed peanuts helped compensate for the latter to an extent.
Tonkatsu watermelon feels like a dish designed to harvest Instagram likes and it’s certainly eye-catching. The crisp, fine-crumbed and dimpled batter was mostly oil-free and somehow cradled the watermelon inside without falling apart at the drop of a chopstick. Delicate yet crunchy and sweet, its fruity qualities contrasted neatly with the relative richness of the tonkatsu-style carapace. It was a relatively small helping though, with the bulk of this dish made up of sliced radishes and edamame beans.
A side of pak choi was competently stir fried and served in soy, although it was oddly chopped into fine bits and served with sliced cucumbers and radishes – ultimately to little effect.
At the other end of the scale were the cabbage rolls, possibly a take on summer rolls or spring rolls. The steaming hot cabbage fronds not only needed more resting time, but were excessively chewy and unwieldy in size, spilling their fulsome load everywhere. That load of diced mushrooms and nuts was a mouth-pleasing one though, especially when daubed with the punchy tang of hoi sin sauce served on the side.
The thick, tightly crumbed pastry of the chocolate tart could’ve been more buttery, while the dark chocolate filling wasn’t as bittersweet as I would’ve liked.
More pleasing, at least in the first instance, was the intriguingly dense yet airy cheesecake. Its gentle sweetness allowed it to act as a conveyor for the tangy sour-sweetness of the umeboshi-style jam plopped to the side. Sadly, all of these qualities were far more muted on a subsequent visit, suggesting that the kitchen is struggling somewhat with consistency issues.
Craving’s vegetarian take on ramen and other Japanese dishes isn’t quite compelling enough to travel across town for, especially once its occasional wobbles and somewhat eccentric opening hours are taken into account. But Craving is a perfectly decent option for locals, and anyone else passing through, who want to eat something that’s meat-free, but not flavour-free. Plus, Craving’s graceful service counts for a lot. To put it another way, while I’m not raving about Craving, the experience here is by no means chafing.
Address: 39B Markfield Road, South Tottenham, London N15 4QA
Phone: 020 8808 3178
Opening Hours: Thursday-Friday 10.00-23.00 (last orders 15.30 and 22.00); Saturday, Sunday and Monday 10.00-16.00 (last orders 15.30); closed Tuesday-Wednesday.
Reservations: yeah, if you want
Average cost including soft drinks but excluding tip: £26 approx.