UPDATE: Life Café is now closed.
Having just had another one of my increasingly-frequent 1 AM bacon fry-ups, I feel the need to make it up to my cholesterol-addled arteries. So here’s a write-up on what may be the healthiest place I’ve ever eaten at – Life Café Organic Restaurant & Bar.
Given that one of my childhood nicknames was ‘Red Beef Girl’, you can probably work out that a vegetarian and vegan joint would not be my first port of call. However, one of my friends (Ka Ming, known to me as Bob or Yeh Yeh for reasons too long to detail!) has recently converted, hence how I found myself chowing down on a meat-free meal at Life. And, far from being the joyless experience I might have imagined, it was actually very lovely indeed.
Forget what you may have thought about vegetarian food being tasteless, worthy and chickpea-strewn. Life offers contemporary, healthy, fresh and most importantly, downright scrummy meals that don’t make vegetarianism seem like a chore. What’s more, there’s not a Birkenstock, straggly goatee or hemp shirt in sight!
Located along the mid-level escalators in Soho, Life makes the most of its location with a sun-streamed first-floor dining area with huge thrown-open windows that you feel you should be singing joyously out of, like some Disney heroine. Admittedly, the view is of people’s washing hanging out the windows of some rather tatty old flats but on a sunny day, it feels light, bright, airy and laid-back. Chunky wooden tables, comfy cushion-strewn banquettes and fully-stocked bookshelves give the place a homely but funky feel, even if it can get a bit cramped during Central’s invariably bustling lunch hour. The bottom floor houses a deli (more of which later), whilst they also offer rooftop dining in the evening.
My main of choice is the filo pastry filled with broccoli, herb-roasted potatoes, caramelised onions and feta cheese, served with mixed baby greens and lemon basil pesto (above, $98). I had it on my first visit and it’s proved too good for me to manage to look past ever since! It’s flavourful, seasoned to perfection and feta cheese, so tasty that even Zeus must have snacked on it in-between chucking thunder-bolts and chasing after nubile young nymphs, turns anything into a winner in my books. The star of the dish is the lemon basil pesto, so fresh, zingy and potently delicious that it practically explodes off the plate. The two slices provided might prove a little much for many; you definitely won’t be leaving Life with an empty stomach! [You can also buy them individually at the deli to takeaway, for around $40]
Life also offers a daily set menu for $105, which includes a soup and main, which change daily, a coffee or tea and an organic cookie. It’s undoubtedly good value but just too much for me – the one time I tried it, it was a kidney-bean filo pastry that was too filling on its own, never mind before you’ve had a generous bowl of soup and are trying to save room for the cookie! I’m not a massive fan of the cookie (a little dry and oaty) but the soups all have that wonderful unprocessed homemade quality and are all the better for it. Here’s my friend Bob chomping on the daily special – some sesame, cashew, tofu noodle concoction that he assured me was very good indeed. And yes, that really is how gloriously sunny it gets up there!
My other friend, Mirander (another non-veggie), went for a lighter option of the Italian roasted vegetable sandwiches, served on whole-wheat foccacia and filled with eggplant, Italian seitan sausage, mozzarella, marinated red peppers, caramelised onions and pesto (below, $98). Another thumbs-up verdict (though a thumbs-down for the strange soggy sausage stuff), with particular compliments paid to the summery Mediterranean flavours and how delightfully un-greasy it was. All Life’s sandwiches are served with mixed baby greens and sweet potato fries, which you can also order as a side for $55. These are another favourite, lighter and less oily than regular fries with a pleasantly sweet taste; ordered separately, they come with this heavenly vegan garlic tofu mayonnaise, which would be even better if they added even more garlic – though I say this as someone whose fingers nearly permanently smell of the stuff because I use so much of it!
I would also highly recommend the Life Burger ($105). I actually scoffed at the idea of a meat-free burger being worth bothering with but actually, this was far more flavourful than some of the dried-up efforts I’ve had, so tasteless that you feel as if the poor cow died in vain! The patty is made from some dull-sounding brown rice and vegetable combination, which gives absolutely no indication of how ‘wow’ the flavours really are. Immaculately-seasoned, it’s all the right kinds of spicy, soft and succulent – I’m not even sure if you can describe vegetables as succulent but trust me, when you eat it, it definitely feels as if you can!
The deli downstairs always looks far too delectable to pass by empty-handed, with prices competitive enough to hold up against the likes of Pret. Bob recommended the tofu wraps but of course, I made an immediate beeline towards the chocolaty stuff!
The organic chocolate biscuit slice (above, $20) is a gorgeous combination of crunchy digestive crumbs and soft melty chocolate. I’ve tried many times to not finish this in one go and never succeeded yet!
Meanwhile, the organic flourless chocolate cake ($45) is similarly scrumptious. It will probably be a bit too nutty for some, but I’m a sucker for the choc-nut combo and the overall texture is light, soft and crumbly. I just wish that the thick ganaché-like slab of chocolate on the top was even thicker!
Life is a pleasant, even shocking (though Life seem far too laidback to shock anyone), surprise to anyone who thinks vegetarian food begins with Quorn and ends with Linda McCartney, with some lentils thrown in along the way. If even ‘Red Beef Girl’ can leave satisfied and without a bacon craving in sight, it must count for something, right?!
Life Café Organic Restaurant & Bar, 10 Shelley Street, Soho, Central, Hong Kong, 28109777; open 12-10pm
Banner and bottom photos from Life Café’s website.
A version of this review also appears on Sassy Hong Kong.