21 Seymour Place London W1H 5BH and 18-20 Weighhouse Street London W1K 5LU
Visited November 2016 and March 2017
Value for money: 5/10
Recommend? – no, unless you’re really desperate for a salad in the Oxford Street area and M&S won’t do.
I’ve tried the Mae Deli twice, once for salad (Seymour Place deli, Nov 2016) and once for the pancakes (Weighhouse St deli, March 2017), which ran as a special for the week of Shrove Tuesday.
I’ll keep it simple: Ella Woodward, owner of the ever-expanding Mae Deli chain, runs a highly effective PR machine. Beautifully curated photos of sensual yet earthy food beckon to you from Instagram, holding their own against the best of food pornography. I was enticed by the photos of pancakes, and curious to see what gluten-free, refined sugar-free pancakes taste like. That is what has made Ella so famous: the promise of healthy yet tasty food that is free from plenty of things that you might be intolerant to but can’t be too sure, so to be on the safe side you better avoid it anyway. For me personally, I have no issue with wheat but eat it sparingly, although I am keen to avoid sugar wherever possible, so the offer of pancakes which delivered on this was reason enough to be ensnared by the tempting photos.
I visited the Seymour Place location in November to try a salad. The offer of a fresh, healthy meal in the West End amidst a sea of unhealthy ones appealed, and I chose the ‘Mae’ salad – a selection of 4 salads for just under a tenner.
The range of food actually on display – as opposed to viewed through an Instagram filter – varies in aesthetic appeal. The salads looked fairly interesting, but frustratingly they couldn’t warm up the falafel, and I don’t know what the point is of eating cold falafel, so I ended up taking it home to warm and eat it.
The girl at the counter enthused over the aubergine and squash daal, or some of vegetable daal combo, I can’t remember. All I remember was looking at the pot she pointed at and thinking how it was a dead match for purple puke. It looked like vomit, and as somebody who has grown up eating daal at home, and the proper kind, I know that you can do much better and cheaper to make your own at home following a proper Asian recipe (it will still be wheat-free and sugar-free, and very nutritious) than pay a silly amount for something that looked that unappetising.
My pea and something (avocado?) hummous was tasty; the falafel good once warmed; the other two salads nice enough but not memorable. Would I pay £10 for those salads again? Nope, not when I can get a bigger and better ‘make your own’ salad from Harrods for £6-7 (little secret).
I decided to try the Mae Deli again for the pancakes, because I’m always curious about pancakes and whether anywhere this side of the Atlantic can get them right. I was looking forward to these and braved the rain for them. I ordered the pancakes with peanut butter, ‘homemade’ chocolate sauce and banana (£5.50). What arrived were three tiny pancakes on a small plate, with a generous amount of peanut butter and quite thin chocolate sauce, and less than half a banana on top. I thought maybe it’s quality over quantity and tucked in, but cutting these was a mission: they were tough and even a little crispy, and once I’d managed to cut through I flipped it upside down and saw that these are not pancakes but pikelets: thin, flat, and quite disappointing.
I ate them because I was hungry, but for a couple of pounds more, I could have eaten superb pancakes – the ‘full of’ rather than ‘free from’ version – from The Diner just off Carnaby Street. Or I could save the money and make my own tasty oat pancakes at home. The pikelets were made edible by the (maple, I think?) syrup and peanut butter, so I ate them. But I offered my feedback to the lady who was serving me, and she was great: she listened, apologised and offered me my money back. She also explained that these are not made on-site but at a central kitchen (due to licencing requirements), and then toasted here to warm them through. This definitely has a negative impact on the taste – no pancakes should be served that way unless you’re at home and you’re making leftovers for yourself – and explains the texture of these pikelets.
Overall review of the Mae Deli
So, my takeaway is this: the Mae Deli runs a good trade and is probably a godsend to people with genuine dietary intolerances. There should be more places which offer healthy meals, BUT I’m not fully convinced Ella’s menu is ‘healthy’. Refined-sugar free is still not sugar-free. Gluten-free is not wheat-free. I’m not an expert, but I think Ella is a pioneer of making some form of healthy eating popular and that is to her credit. However, the taste and quality needs improvement – the food is okay, definitely not great, and I would rather choose a nutritious, fresh dish at a good independent restaurant than eat here. For the price, I would definitely expect more. I suspect as more rivals enter the market – and they will – Mae Deli will have to up their game to keep up.