They are not the words you hope to hear on being shown to your table in a new restaurant: "Enjoy the space. Enjoy the emptiness". But Aloka isn't just a restaurant. It's a 'Quality of Life Centre' in the heart of alternative Brighton, a holistic spa serving vegan and raw food. Here, a dinner service for only two customers isn't a problem, but an opportunity to connect with stillness and mindfulness. Those empty tables just represent the road less travelled.
It would be all too easy to make fun of Aloka. But I'm not here to do that. I'm here because my Brighton friend Marina has summoned me, excited by the quality of the food on offer at Aloka's buffet counter. In the tiny storefront café, you can fill a box with vegan goodies, pay by weight, and eat at a shared table, or head off for a picnic on the beach. Upstairs, there's a restaurant, open in the evenings, and it was there that we made our – as it turns out, unnecessary – dinner reservation.
Bravely, Aloka is situated almost directly opposite Terre a Terre, one of Britain's busiest and most famous vegetarian restaurants, whose steady stream of customers Marina and I were able to watch arriving from our window-side table in Aloka's empty dining room.
In contrast to the warm, woody feel of most vegetarian restaurants, Aloka is as white and shiny as an operating theatre. White moulded plastic chairs and linen-shrouded tables give it the feel of an upmarket cosmetic-surgery clinic. There are pendant lamps made from what look like test tubes, and chill-out temple fusion pulses from the sound system. So far, so spa.
But the food is a treatment in itself – colourful, healthy and crazily inventive. Normally a menu might offer up a few unfamiliar ingredients. Here there are whole strings of them – the 'Botanical Living Special', for example, which reads like a spam e-mail: 'Nshiki-Dori Market daikon layered terrine, nori white miso "rice" crackers, soramame and peavetta, dulse kimpi, "raw".' What, no 'Vigara' [sic]?
With its emphasis on Asian ingredients and use of sprouting, fermentation and dehydration, Aloka aligns itself firmly within the modernist wing of the vegetarian movement. The menu offers no meat or fish, obviously, but also no eggs or dairy, and no refined flour, sugar or grains.
The balance falls roughly 50/50 between the raw and the cooked. A mezze platter contained more vegetables than the average corner shop, most of them elaborately primped and prepped – a vivid shot of raw butternut squash and apple soup; peppery beetroot crisps; griddled aubergine wrapped round something ratatouille-ish; pliable linseed crispbreads for dipping in tapenade or a cashew nut and cardamom dip; various unidentified, but mostly delicious, gloops and grains. And weirdly, amid all those raw ingredients, a sprig of oven-roasted grapes and two piping-hot tomatoes, adding a levelling touch of the full English to an other-wordly plateful.
A main course billed as 'raw curry' was even more labour-intensive, a raw-food rewrite of a regular thali. The 'rice' was a juicy rubble of raw root vegetables and coconut; a skewer of tandoori-orange balls revealed themselves as mushrooms; sprouted lentils stood in for daal, and there was a full supporting cast of upmas, and bhajis, chutneys and raitas.
More conventional, in that it contained several ingredients we could actually recognise, was the Buddha Bowl, a macrobiotic dish built around brown rice and quinoa, with roasted vegetables, including sweet potato spread with miso and dusted with buckwheat, leaving it with a soy-salt tang.
The ingredients may all be natural and organic, but the actual experience of eating this giddying ID parade of unplaceable flavours and textures feels about as far from natural as you can imagine. If the palate were a piano, Aloka's food would be fiddling around at the dusty ends, on keys that never normally get played. Head chef Arnaud Hauchon, whose background is in classic French gastronomy, was converted to the raw and vegan food movement in San Francisco and joined Aloka a year ago. His enthusiasm and perfectionism shine through; you have to care passionately about what you're doing to put this much work into a plateful of food.
With a couple of puddings, including a fab rosemary and raw chocolate torte, and a bottle of Adobe Gewurztraminer from the list of well-priced biodynamic wines, we paid £37 a head with service, which struck us as good value, given the hours of slog that had gone into each dish. We loved it, while recognising that it might not be for everyone. As Marina put it, "I can think of a dozen friends I wouldn't bring here". But every journey begins with a single step, and if a few of Terre a Terre's regulars were to step over the road, they might find themselves in for a bit of a treat.
Aloka, 14 East Street, Brighton (01273 823178). Around £37 per head including service
Tipping policy: 'No service charge. All tips go to the staff'
Side orders: Veg out
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